Both Sides Spinning Results of Internet Porn Filter Study

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Internet pornography filters can over-block health websites but fail to screen out all pornographic sites, according to a new study of filtering software used by schools and libraries. But a filter industry official insists the filtering technology is doing its job.

The study found that filtering software blocked an average of 24 percent of health sites when set to the most restrictive configuration. An intermediate setting blocked five percent, and the least restrictive setting blocked just 1.4 percent. Researchers searched terms that included: "condoms," "safe sex," "gay," and "Ecstasy."

But filters didn't do a better job of filtering out pornographic web sites at higher settings, screening out around 90 percent of porn sites regardless of the chosen setting, according to the study.

"Filters can strike a good balance between protecting kids from pornography while giving them access to online health information, but only if they're configured carefully," said Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, sponsor of the study, which is to be published in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study is entitled, "See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information" and is authored by Paul Resnick, PhD., and Caroline Richardson, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan.

If filters are set to a level that's too high, "they can be a serious obstacle," said Rideout, "especially on issues such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and birth control."

Teenagers need to have access to that sort of information, groups like Planned Parenthood, the American Library Association, and Responsible Netizen argued at a Washington, D.C., press conference on Tuesday.

"No parent should be playing Russian Roulette with their child's health," said Library Association Executive Director Emily Sheketoff.

Nancy Willard, executive director of Responsible Netizen, accused filter software companies of tailoring their products to conservatives and oppressive world regimes and secreting important information about how the filters work. Filtering software companies should be "publicly accountable," said Willard.

But David Burt, spokesman for filter software company N2H2, denied that all such companies have an "ideological bias" and insisted that companies don't make a business decision to hide product information from consumers.

Filters give consumers, including libraries and schools, many choices about what and how much to block, said Burt. Even though filters have a certain error rate, depending on the product and at what level a filter is set, "filters do in fact work as advertised," he said. And "we do not block breast cancer sites," Burt added, trying to dispel a popular perception.

Donna Rice Hughes, president of the anti-porn group Enough is Enough, argued that while there's no perfect system for keeping kids away from accidentally encountering pornographic websites, filtering software is an important tool for parents and schools, a tool that should be combined with parental guidance.

"Children are not safe when you have unrestricted access" to the Internet, said Hughes.

According to some studies, nine in ten kids aged 8-16 years have viewed porn online, mostly by accident while doing homework.

Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America, hailed the results of the Kaiser Foundation study, for showing that "filters can tell the difference between health information and smut."

"This is further proof that filtered Internet access in public schools and libraries provides useful and appropriate material without becoming dirty peep shows funded by taxpayers," LaRue stated.

See Earlier Story:
Internet Ruling Means 'Taxpayers Fund Smut,' Conservatives Say (May 31, 2002)

E-mail a news tip to David Thibault.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.