The allegation sent Cyber Patrol into a frenzy. The company's product is designed to keep minors, and in some cases, workers, out of pornographic and other adult-oriented sites on the Net. The blocking program maker claims that unless a customer chooses to do so, its product doesn't block access to search engines or keyword search terms. For example, using Cyber Patrol's default settings, a surfer can see Yahoo descriptions for links to pornographic sites, as well as graphic ads that are displayed when a search term such as "sex" is typed in.
But as of this morning, the Cyber Patrol's own mechanism that allows a person to search for blocked sites, CyberNOT, reported that Yahoo was, indeed, a site banned by the program, leading to confusion and cries of censorship by some on the Net. Yahoo reportedly links to 730,000 sites--including a sea of sexually explicit material.
Cyber Patrol contends that Yahoo was never on the "real" CyberNOT list, and therefore automatically blocked by its product.
"There was a technical problem with our CyberNOT search engine only. We don't block search engines, and we have never blocked search engines," Susan Getgood, director of marketing for Cyber Patrol, said today. The company has sold about 750,000 copies of its filtering product.
Sites that "parents may find questionable," such as those containing nudity, violence, sexual acts, profanity, or hate speech are reviewed by Cyber Patrol and then added to the CyberNOT list. Opponents of such technologies say they filter many sites that have socially redeeming value, such as material about safe sex.
Yahoo was listed in the "CyberNOT" search engine by mistake as a result of a separate project Cyber Patrol was commissioned to do for Prodigy. Cyber Patrol created a category called "search engines" specifically for the online service's own use. For example, Prodigy could allow its customers to block access to all or some search engines. But during the process of creating the category, Yahoo was accidentally listed in the CyberNOT search engine, which all Net users can access, making it appear that Cyber Patrol itself was shielding its users from Yahoo by default.
It's no surprise that defenses went up when word circulated on the Fight Censorship list that Yahoo was being barred from Cyber Patrol's customers. Filtering programs are seen by many as the cornerstone of online censorship movements. Case in point: Facing local pressure to curb access to the Net's red-light districts, public libraries across the country are debating whether to install blocking software on computers used by children. (See related story)
The issue, as well as pornographic spam and advertisements that are "pushed" to Net users, will be discussed in December at the "Internet/Online Summit: Focus on Children," which was spearheaded by the White House.
Online censorship opponents also frequently question the effectiveness of filtering products, which they say give parents a false safety net. Today, for example, six out of the first 16 sites listed under Yahoo's category "Sex: Virtual Clubs" were accessible using Cyber Patrol 4.0.
"Sometimes a common little trick that sites do is move their [Internet Protocol] address. In a day or two we usually track them down again and filter them," Getgood said. "Right now the choice for parents is to block keywords or block the search engines. Or they can sit with their kid if they are really that worried."