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Internet Filtering Software: What solutions does the Internet provide to protect your children?

Software developers have responded to concerns about protecting children from objectionable content on the Internet by developing "filtering software" to enable parents and other supervising adults to set content and access preferences for children. Most filters currently act simply as content filters. Software companies are now working to add privacy preferences to their content filters. In the future, label-reading software could enable consumers to set their computers to access only those Internet sites whose privacy policies match their privacy preferences.



Content-screening software uses either a filtering or rating method. The filtering method allows access to the Internet, but blocks the sites (or materials) that the software publisher defines as objectionable. Typically, the software recognizes a database of banned sites and search words. The database, however, requires regular updating, which may be at a cost to users through subscriptions. This design is not fool proof. It does not prevent a user from clicking on a link to a site that is not in the database, and it cannot stop a clever search that avoids the search words listed in the database.

The rating method blocks access to sites that do not bear a particular rating. The two currently operational rating systems are Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet (RSAC) 1 and SafeSurf 2.Rating programs identify a site's HTML code and only those that contain the code with the rating are allowed through. Parents can, for example,restrict their children's access to sites that are rated as having no sexual material, foul language, or violence. This rating method uses the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) specifications described in Section II of this Workshop report. SafeSurf and RSACi use the PICS format, but rely on Web sites to rate their own pages, while they reserve the right to verify each site's rating. Only a minority of existing Web sites is currently rated by these systems. Filtering software companies can add additional blocked sites to their databases on an ongoing basis. Rating systems, however, are largely relying on Web sites to insert rating labels on their sites, and sites have been slow to do so.

Foreign languages and unusual spellings may also bypass filter software. Conversely, unintentional blocking may occur, preventing access to harmless medical and historical data. Phrases with dual meanings or contexts can also cause unintentional blocking. For example, a site containing Hitler's name or the word "fascism" may be blocked because the filter screens for hate content. To some extent, if the software can be customized, some of these problems can be alleviated by allowing the supervising adult to adjust the software's lists.

The various filtering software products offer a wide range of features. The least complicated software simply maintains a list of Web site addresses and blocks user access to the sites on the list. Some products offer the option of using lists and employing PICS-compliant rating systems as a backup filter. Many programs offer a monitoring option,which creates a record of where the user attempted to go and when. This can be either in addition to or as an alternative to blocking access. Programs may also shut down an application entirely or e-mail the"Administrator" 3 of an attempt to access a blocked site. Filtering can vary as well, from one-way, where only the incoming text is screened, or two-way, where what the user types in (ie., a computerized order form or e-mail) is also monitored. Two-way screening is useful to prevent the flow of personally identifiable information. Two-way screening occurs in conjunction with custom lists of blocked terms, including names,addresses, birth dates, and credit card numbers. While some products are limited to interactions on the Internet, many give users the option to continue screening offline, in word processors,games, financial managers, and any other software on the computer.

Server-based filtering options, available more commonly for business use, install filters directly on the server of a system of computers (usually a Local Access Network). This option serves all computers directly attached to the network, as well as those connecting through a dial-up service by modem. Most filtering packages created for home use, however, are client-based, meaning software is installed directly by the user and is limited to their system, regardless of their mode of online connection (modem, LAN, etc.). While the difficulty of setup varies, all software packages are fairly simple. The actual installation, whether the software is downloaded from the Internet to the hard drive or by floppy disk, occurs in a matter of minutes. Configuration is more complicated, and the time needed is directly related to the complexity of the software. Those which offer customizable lists, multi-user options, PICS-compliant lists, and other choices take longer to set up and master. Most instructions are clear, and technical support is readily available with each package, making it possible to get any software package up and running in a short period of time. Though prices vary, many home and school editions are available for free or at a low cost. Many server-based online services provide filtering software at no additional cost to their members.

  1. The Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), an organization initially formed by software publishing companies in 1994 to rate video game software for violence, adapted its rating system to the Web and expanded the categories to include ratings for the level of violence, sex, nudity, and offensive language. The RSAC asks Web sites to create ratings for their own pages by answering a questionnaire at the RSAC's home page. After completing the questionnaire, a PICS-compatible HTML tag is designated and the site can insert it into its pages. The tag is then added to the RSAC ratings system. The RSAC reserves the right to verify the accuracy of each rating. A number of the filters described in this Appendix support the RSAC ratings system, including Cyber Patrol, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, and SurfWatch.

  2. SafeSurf was begun by a group of parents in 1995 to create a "child safe" environment on the Internet. Its Web site provides HTML tags that Web sites can use to rate their sites according to SafeSurf's criteria.

  3. This section uses the term "Administrator" to refer to the person who controls the implementation of the filtering software, i.e., the parent, teacher or employer who installs and configures the software program.

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Major Online Services

Each of the major online providers is increasing its efforts to create a safer environment for children using the Internet. America Online (AOL) offers parents a number of blocking options. Parents may limit their children's access to the "Kids Only" or the "Teens Only" areas, which consist of pre-selected entertainment and educational sites, as well as adult monitored chat and message areas. Users are kicked out of a chat room if the supervisor deems their language to be inappropriate. AOL's Member Profile, e-mail, and chat areas permit an extensive collection of personal information. A parent may block a child from all chat rooms and Internet newsgroups on AOL. The option of presetting billing limits is also provided. AOL offers its members Cyber Patrol, which is described below.

Prodigy provides parents with the option to control access to its individual bulletin boards, chat areas, or newsgroups. Parents can also block complete access to the Web for certain users. Prodigy offers kids and teen chat rooms, as well as special Web areas exclusively for children and teens. Prodigy also makes Cyber Patrol available to its members. Within Prodigy's chat rooms and public forums, users are prevented from posting items deemed unacceptable for children.

CompuServe offers parents the option of controlling which areas members of the family can enter by using passwords. No chat areas are available for children. Parents have the option of having e-mail sent to them first for screening before a child receives it. CompuServe also makes Cyber Patrol available to its members.

Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, offers a built-in parental control feature. Through the "Ratings" options menu, the Administrator can select to block access to a site or single page based on a number of content categories, e.g. violence, nudity, and adult language. The default parental controls are based on the RSAC standards, but the Explorer will also support ratings from any organization that follows the PICS standard.

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Summary Of The Filtering Software

Although the Internet offers consumers many new and exciting opportunities, some parents would like more control over what their children view and do online. To assist parents in providing a kid-friendly Internet for their children, there are several software packages available. In addition, there are organizations that compile lists of child-safe sites for your family to visit.

In a report published by the Federal Trade Commission, several child protection technologies were noted. These technologies let parents take an active role in ensuring that their children have a safe and enjoyable online experience. Sites that offer blocking options, along with hyperlinks and descriptions, can be found below.

Software Descriptions

Developed by Solid Oak Software, Cybersitter filters the Web,newsgroups, chat rooms, and e-mail and also offers the option of blocking offline applications, including games. It blocks sites related to adult themes such as sex, hate, violence, and drugs. Most importantly, Cybersitter addresses privacy issues by offering a custom blocking service, allowing a user to create a list of words and phrases that screen both incoming and outgoing information, in addition to the default restrictions. This can prevent the transfer of information such as credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information. Its "Advanced Phrase Definitions Capabilities" allows a user to offer sentence combination possibilities -- [I, we] live [at, on] [1234] [Main Street] to maximize the prevention of the transfer of such information. For additional blocking, a user can choose to add the PICS standard rating systems, which are included in the package. The program does not block sites that have not been rated by one of the lists. A unique feature of Cybersitter is its "Intelligent Phrase Filtering" system,which looks at words in context to prevent accidental access or unnecessary blocking of phrases with multiple meanings. It also offers the option of logging the sites visited without actually blocking them.

Net Nanny
Trove Investment Corporation's Net Nanny emphasizes the parents' role in determining what is appropriate for their children, rather than the software company's determination. It offers a custom dictionary that is entirely defined by the Administrator. The Administrator can control transfer of personal information and credit card numbers. The Administrator can also control access to chat areas and Web sites, as well as to any program executable on both Windows and DOS, including all online services. To provide assistance, Net Nanny has created a sample dictionary list as a start-up point. Once the list is completed, the package screens both incoming and outgoing information. It also maintains a log of blocked sites and can display the frequency of each type of violation. On request, the Administrator can choose to have the system shut down after a pre-selected number of violations has occurred.

Cyber Patrol
Cyber Patrol, a Microsystems Software Inc. product, filters objectionable material on online services, the Web, and chat rooms, and continues filtering offline software programs as long as the Internet connection is maintained. It works with either an exclusive "CyberNot" list or an inclusive, but more restrictive, "CyberYes" list. The Administrator can customize either list to include or exclude particular sites. The Administrator may also review a series of content categories and choose those that are appropriate for each user. Cyber Patrol is not able to filter new sites with unidentifiable addresses. It can filter by time of day or by total hours allowed. Upon request, the package can generate reports and charts of time usage. Cyber Patrol also addresses privacy concerns with its newly added "ChatGard." This feature enables the Administrator to block transfer of personally identifiable information using a custom list of words and phrases. When information from this list is typed in, "x" marks appear on screen instead. Cyber Patrol is now offered by AOL, CompuServe, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. It is also PICS compatible and can read SafeSurf and RSAC ratings.

Bess is a server-based filter, which is available for online subscription. Subscribers dial into Bess and use the Bess browser. Bess offers links to pre selected sites and blocks entire Web sites or individual pages, depending on the amount of inappropriate material. Access to selected newsgroups is an option, but chat areas are not accessible. Both incoming and outgoing e-mail are screened for inappropriate language. Bess offers the benefits of a continually updated service provided through the server and is resistant to tampering, since the controls are located at the server.

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