KidzNet filters pornographic material Howard County firm offers new service

March 26, 1997|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

A Howard County Internet service company is beginning to sell subscriptions to a kids-only Internet service, an innovation it says can help parents -- and corporations -- control access to pornography on the Internet.

The new service from Clark Internet Services Inc., called KidzNet, is being introduced as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to uphold last year's Communications Decency Act (CDA), which makes it a crime for a person knowingly to circulate "patently offensive" sexual material to on-line sites accessible by those under 18.

Opponents of the law say the Constitution allows most limitations on free speech only when censorship is the least restrictive way to protect a "compelling" government interest.

The law's supporters argue that compelling interests include protecting children from indecency online, but opponents say technology is less restrictive than censorship in reaching that goal.

Columbia-based ClarkNet says its solution works better than popular smut-blocking software such as SurfWatch and Net Nanny because its system is based at ClarkNet's headquarters, not on individual PCs -- where, ClarkNet contends, children can turn off or bypass screening programs.

The service uses a private number attached to the customer's account. When a KidzNet account holder dials ClarkNet's system, modems at ClarkNet's operations center will recognize the number and route the call to a separate computer that is programmed to block adult-oriented Internet sites.

Both sides of the debate before the Supreme Court agreed that KidzWatch is a significant innovation, but competitors were not initially impressed by the news from ClarkNet, a privately owned, four-year-old company that has about 6,000 subscribers, including The Baltimore Sun Co.

"It's a further nail in the coffin of the CDA," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "There's definitely a need for family-friendly Internet access, and here it is. What legal tools do you need if people can get what they want and protect their children without government interference?"

Indeed, the effectiveness of filtering software was a major reason cited by a federal court in Philadelphia in striking down the Communications Decency Act last year. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last Wednesday on the government's appeal to reinstate the law.

Donna Rice Hughes, a spokesman for Enough Is Enough, the Fairfax, Va.-based group spearheading support for the law, said KidzNet is welcome but still not enough.

"Law enforcement still needs the legal tools to prosecute someone who sends Penthouse magazine to children," Hughes said. "Just because we have security systems in our homes, would we repeal the laws that let law enforcement prosecute people who commit burglary?"

However, ClarkNet marketing director David Flanagan made clear that it was a business decision, not a moral or political one, to design and sell KidzNet. "It's simply a way to provide a service that is in demand, and one that no one else or practically no one else offers," Flanagan said.

Flanagan said the system will update its library of objectionable content every 24 hours, sparing parents the now-common task of downloading lists of the latest objectionable Internet sites from the World Wide Web pages of the companies that make content-blocking software.

KidzNet also bars access to Internet newsgroups, bulletin boards or chat rooms, whether pornographic or not. Flanagan said the company decided to do that because anyone can post objectionable material in unsupervised Internet areas, even newsgroups or chat rooms designed for more demure topics.

"It is difficult to differentiate between educational sites and truly bad sites," Flanagan said.

Executives at SurfWatch and Net Nanny said ClarkNet will block too much content, limiting the Internet's usefulness as an educational and research tool. And spokesmen for major Internet service providers said blocking software is highly effective.

"If they do it purely with hardware, it will probably have to be a sledgehammer approach," said Jay Friedland, vice president of strategic marketing for SpyGlass Inc., which owns SurfWatch. By contrast, Friedland said, SurfWatch software installed on a home computer "can block one picture at a site that has 50,000 pages."

Friedland said a small number of Internet service providers, including WebTV Networks Inc., are already filtering content at the "server" using software provided by SurfWatch.

"A lot of this is selling the fear of the Internet, not the good stuff," said Gordon Ross, president of Vancouver, B.C.-based Net Nanny.

AT&T WorldNet spokesman Mike Miller said AT&T also provides software to let customers filter their own content and does not plan to adopt network-based screening.

Flanagan said ClarkNet plans to sell customized blocking systems to corporate clients to ensure that workers don't bring material into their offices that offends other workers or that tempts staffers to spend work time goofing off. Corporations are free to regulate use of the Internet on their computers because the free-speech clause of the Constitution limits state action, not most acts of private firms.

"We're beginning to see corporations use them, and that's where the real business will be," said Peter Krasilovsky, senior analyst at Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda-based new media consulting firm.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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