Tech Industry

Filter firms make most of Starr report

In another ironic twist, the same filtering software firms the president has praised are now using their products to block the explicit Starr report.

Parents worried about their children surfing into sexually explicit waters on the Net now have to contend with the widely posted, graphic Kenneth Starr report about President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

In another of a series of ironies surrounding the Clinton saga, the same filtering software companies the president has praised for making the Net safer for children are now using their products to block explicit details about the president in the report.

Of course, Clinton probably would not be upset about the use of filters to block embarrassing information about his liaisons with Lewinsky.

"I think no one wants children to get to the information," said Brian Milburn, president of Solid Oak Software, which produces the sometimes-controversial Cybersitter filtering product. "I'm guessing the White House wishes that everybody had Cybersitter to make sure no one had this information."

Like many filtering products, Cybersitter automatically will filter out pages that contain certain key words, such as "oral sex," but it will not necessarily block the entire report, Milburn said.

Today's report underscores what has been ongoing since this case began to break several months ago: Milburn said he had gotten calls on several occasions from adults complaining that Cybersitter was filtering entire mainstream news sites.

When Solid Oak checked, it found that front pages contained key words such as "oral sex" in headlines and lead paragraphs, Milburn said. Recently, however, sites have not included such references as prominently in the stories.

Other filtering firms also are using this occasion to promote their products--or to at least let Net users know that their products will block even news sites that contain adult-oriented content.

SafeSurf, for instance, issued a release earlier today saying it has offered the House Judiciary Committee help in making sure the report is rated appropriately. SafeSurf filters sites based on ratings.

But the Net isn't the only medium grappling with the issue of how to both get relevant news about the president of the United States and how to keep children from being exposed to explicit material.

Parents have had to filter newspapers, magazines, and television. But whereas software can block words--although most companies acknowledge that their systems are imperfect--television and print products generally can only warn their audience that material may be unsuitable for some.

For instance, CNN, which has been covering the scandal on an up-to-the-minute basis, has warned viewers several times that material might be offensive.

Milburn said this case has made him think of Watergate and the scandal that led to the 1974 resignation of then-President Richard Nixon. At least then, he said, "kids could watch it."

In another irony, had it not been for the Supreme Court's decision to throw out key portions of the Communications Decency Act last year, the Starr report could have been banned from the Net.