For example, if you've set up AOL to restrict your children to "Kids Only" Web sites:
Children can call up the conservative Constitution Party and Libertarian Party, both of which are promoting their own U.S. presidential candidates. But if they attempt to view Ralph Nader's Green Party or Ross Perot's Reform Party, they see only a "not appropriate for children" error.
AOL's "Young Teens" filter, designed for older children, allows a few more Web sites to be viewed. The apparent political bias, however, remains the same:
Sites promoting gun use are available, including Colt, Browning and the National Rifle Association. But prominent gun safety organizations are blocked, including the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Safer Guns Now and the Million Mom March.
None of the blocked sites contain depictions of nudity or even models in swimwear.
"It's not just indecency that AOL is trying to keep away from children," says Susan Wishnetsky, a Chicago librarian.
As a board member of a youth rights organization, Wishnetsky feels the dominant Internet service provider is "eliminating the scope of experience kids have access to."
AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato said today that he was "unaware of any conservative bias" in the youth filters used by the service.
The software firm that produces the filtering rules is The Learning Company, a unit of toymaker Mattel, which the toymaker says it plans to sell off.
Susan Getgood, general manager of The Learning Company's "Cyber Patrol" division, said her group "uses a 'whitelist' approach," in which a specific list of sites is approved for young children.
Getgood denied that the list has a deliberate slant.
"We have a regular process of reviewing sites that are submitted, and if they meet our criteria they are added," she said. "If some sites are included, it's probably because someone submitted them."
AOL's latest software, version 5.0, was tested by viewing more than 100 political sites over a period of several days. AOL's filters for children consistently allowed the viewing of far more conservative sites than Democratic and liberal sites. The selection remained consistent throughout the testing period.
Surprisingly, I found that even those children who were limited to the most restrictive "Kids Only" filter could, in some circumstances, view sex sites that were recently visited by adults.
After putting the "Kids Only" setting in place, typing a Web address such as Sex.com initially results in a "not appropriate" error and the site is blocked.
But if Sex.com had recently been visited by an adult user of that computer, simply clicking the browser's Back button and then the Forward button causes the site to appear on screen in its full, lusty glory. The browser, as originally configured, can store recently visited sites in its cache memory for weeks. (Sophisticated PC users can turn this feature off in an advanced dialog box.)
How would a child find out which sites an adult had recently visited? Child's play. AOL conveniently stores in plain text all the addresses the adult user recently visited. Simply look in the file named "Dad.arl" (or similar).
Children who share an AOL account with their parents could rattle off their parents' favorite sites at the dinner table. This would surely lead to a heart-warming discussion of family values.
The average child in the United States sees 200,000 killings, stabbings and beatings on television by the age of 18, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy cites numerous scientific studies demonstrating that many children learn violent behavior from shows they watch.
After a few years of exposure to television, it's hard to imagine that anything on the Internet would be worth filtering out--even if the filters worked.
Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to firstname.lastname@example.org. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.