Adult site filters have their limits

July 01, 2004|By Joseph Menn | Joseph Menn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In the years since the federal government passed the 1998 law aimed at protecting children while they use the Internet, technology has made the job substantially easier.

At the same time, the purveyors of adult material have become more aggressive as they seek to reach unwitting audiences of all ages.

In their ruling Tuesday prohibiting enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, five Supreme Court justices suggested that software filters could do more than a federal law to shield minors from inappropriate Web content. Internet experts generally agreed, though they said filters still have a raft of shortcomings.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game, but we're learning faster than the bad guys are," said Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for America Online, the largest U.S. Internet service provider.

Filters are a far from ideal solution, often blocking sites that are harmless. It's also simple for a determined underage user to disable or otherwise evade the filters with free software accessible through a Web search.

The first result of a Google search for "filtering software" and "teen" is a site with the headline, "How to disable your blocking software." Although the site,, is blocked by all the major filtering programs, teens could access its tools from another computer and load them onto their PCs.

Filters work best when they are set up to protect children who aren't looking for anything offensive. AOL, MSN and other Internet service providers offer parental controls that can be tailored by age group and an array of other preferences.

For the youngest children, some services offer a virtual sandbox of largely handpicked sites. Older children can be blocked from sites devoted to sex, gambling and other vices. If a child requests access to a site that has been blocked, a parent can unblock it if desired.

One advantage is that these services work even if the child is using another computer, as long as the same access provider and log-on are used.

Parents can purchase additional filters that reside on a specific computer. Software programs such as CyberSitter and CyberPatrol draw mixed reviews from parents - instant messaging is especially tricky to control - but are often considered better than nothing.

Filtering software combined with parental controls is most effective, said Weinstein, "but they are not a replacement for parental involvement."

Even so, scourges such as spam and pop-up ads can lead to unpleasant experiences, and battling those is rarely a winning proposition.

Some Net experts said that they felt the Supreme Court wasn't praising filters so much as faulting the law.

"It's likely that filters have gotten better, but there are limits," said lawyer Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposed the government in a separate case over required filters at public libraries. "You will never have a judge on a [computer] chip that says, `This meets the legal definition of obscenity.'"

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing paper.

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