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Safe Surfing?

May 08, 2003 17:44 IST

Pornography filters are popular. But they may be far from 100 per cent effective

Don't like it? Block it! Sounds good on paper, but blocking or filtering software has its share of pros and cons. To begin with, these programmes work, but only to a certain extent. Ask the users. Delhi-based Naresh Mishra installed some security software to protect his children from disturbing content. "But", he says, "the software required users to register the names of sites with objectionable content." What this meant, then, was that his children were safe, but only from sites he could think of blocking -- not a viable option when confronted with a billion Web sites.

Not everyone's dissatisfied though. Krishna Mehta, senior teacher at a reputed school that uses filtering software, says, "It has not only prevented the problem but has also helped us identify students misusing the Internet". Some folk, like N Radha, for instance, continue to believe in human intervention alone though. A Mumbai-based housewife, Radha has restricted her children from surfing without adult supervision. "The only way to control their surfing habits is to keep an eye on them."

Filtering software
is becoming increasingly popular, given the rise in pornography in India. Parents can configure several blocking programs to filter sites or monitor chatting. While these tools are worth exploring, they aren't panaceas. The best way to make sure children have a positive experience online is to stay in touch with what they are doing. R Sridhar of Wowkids, a children's portal, says that parents play a key role "by spending time with the children, trusting them and being open with them. Children must feel comfortable talking to parents if they run into trouble online. If suspicious parents complicate issues, Web-illiterate parents will make things even worse."

Filters are not a substitute for adult supervision and educating students about the appropriate use of technology, says Larry Magid
. Interestingly, this applies to the corporate world too, as more and more companies now keep a check on
employee browsing habits. Ashutosh, senior engineer at a reputed software company, says that "blocking programmes are installed to keep track of Internet misuse. Employees are prohibited from browsing objectionable sites, downloading, etc. However, the kind of software used isn't openly discussed.

A recent
survey found that 75 per cent of employees spent time surfing non-work related sites. In such cases, filtering software can keep a check and increase productivity. Governments are beginning to toe the line too. The Federal government in Pakistan has ordered the Pakistan Internet Exchange and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block pornographic sites.

Most filters block pages by weeding out sites containing a predetermined set of words. Pearl Software
provides software that detects and prevents employee abuse of Internet access. Cyber-snoop allows the monitoring of Internet activity and blocks unwanted content while directing users to more desirable sites.

According to the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) or SafeSurf, vendors of Net filtering software such as Net Nanny
, ZeekSafe, Cyber patrol, cybersitter and Surfwatch determine what is appropriate and what isn't. Some filters can be configured to set the time spent by a child online, while other filters restrict the use of chat rooms and prevent users from entering into personal conversations. Websense is based on pass-through filtering technology -- pages pass through an Internet control point such as a firewall, proxy server or caching device. It checks each request to immediately determine whether a page should be allowed or not.

Not everyone takes filtering lying down. Public debates have cropped up regarding the use of filtering software in public libraries and offices, while, in the US, there has been a national level protest against filtering
. Opponents have called for the repeal of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires schools to install filtering and blocking software. Some schools and libraries have opted out of CIPA, preferring personal supervision and student training instead.

Another argument against filtering is that several filters actually block informative sites
. The Kaiser Family Foundation claims that health-related sites are also blocked, hindering the flow of scientific information.

According to studies
conducted by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), certain filters can successfully block pornography, while allowing health-related information in. There have been three levels of filtering discussed, based on studies conducted at Michigan University. According to Dr Caroline Richardson, on a least-restrictive level, a filter blocks 87 per cent of erotic sites and only 1.4 per cent of health-related ones. At more 'aggressive' filtering levels, the result changes and, at the 'intermediate' level, 5 per cent of health sites is blocked along with all pornographic content. At the most restrictive setting, 25 per cent of informational sites were filtered out.

Where there is installation, there are hurdles too. Peacefire
claims to have developed censor ware-disabling programs that disable blocking software. Parents need to do more than install filters. Reports reveal how file-sharing technology makes it possible to trade pornography without being intercepted by filters. According to Randy Saaf, file sharing sites are hard to police.

Are your children safe, then? And are your employees really logging on to check weather reports? Maybe not
. It will still take a while, apparently, for technology to take the place of our good old human chaperones.


MORE OPTIONS Blocks individuals, sites and groups.

Surfsafety: Web safety information, a newsletter, links and more.

Chibrow: Controls children's Internet use by allowing parents to create a drop-down list of safe sites.

CSM: Blocks sexual and violent content.

Safeconnect: Filters sexual, violent or criminal content, as well as chat sites.

SOSKidsproof: Scans each web page, has a built-in search criteria and allows parental control.

LDC: Blocks unwanted sites, has a foul word filter and password protection.

Priyanka Srivastava