Software maker Cyber Patrol and the Anti-Defamation League today announced a new filter that will bar access to anti-Semitic, racist, and other forms of hate speech online, signaling a change in the way Net filtering companies operate.
The special version of the Learning Company's Cyber Patrol will be released early next year to block sites deemed hateful by the ADL, which has been fighting the slander of Jewish people and other forms of bigotry since 1913. Cyber Patrol users also can add the ADL list of sites to their current program, which typically is set to screen for nudity, profanity, and material about drugs or gangs.
Until now, Cyber Patrol software and other filtering products on the market have been criticized for arbitrarily banning sites. For example, software that filters sites that contain the word "sex" could block material about women's rights, gay and lesbian issues, and safe sex. Free speech advocates and groups such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) also question technology companies' authority to judge content and charge that products often limit the user's control over what is blocked.
However, since the Supreme Court's rejection of the Communications Decency Act as unconstitutional in June, the industry has faced pressure to improve products so that parents can better depend on them as a safeguard for minors who surf the Net. If parents aren't satisfied with technological solutions, they may push for another law similar to the CDA, which made it a felony to use the Net to transmit or post "indecent" material if it could be obtained by minors.
The fury over alleged online hate sites has increased in the past few months. In late November, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights launched a Web site at a cost of $100,000 to battle sites that promote racism. And in April, the ADL unsuccessfully pressured America Online to eliminate a subscriber's Web page that endorsed the Ku Klux Klan.
But as with any drive to cleanse the Net of material that one group finds objectionable, the efforts to censor online hate speech are strongly countered by those who want to uphold free speech under the First Amendment.
"It just an additional category. But it does give the parent the choice of using the ADL's more than 80 years of experience in fighting hate speech," Susan Getgood, director of marketing for Cyber Patrol, said today.
When a hate site is blocked by the filter, the user will be redirected to ADL's Web site, which features articles about prejudice and bigotry. Like other versions of Cyber Patrol, the ADL version will cost $29.95 if downloaded from the Web.
"The days of smudgy mimeographed hate tracts arriving in unmarked brown envelopes are over. Today's bigots offer their message online in full-color animation with music and video, all designed to attract and influence kids," Abraham Foxman, national director of ADL, said in a statement.
Still, while Cyber Patrol may be turning the hate category over to ADL, it still is highly criticized for its shortcomings. In November, for example, six out of the first 16 sites listed under Yahoo's category "Sex: Virtual Clubs" were accessible using Cyber Patrol 4.0.
"Peacefire has concluded that the category blocks any favorable mention of alcoholic beverages, rather than merely targeting Web sites 'where alcohol is promoted or sold,' as stated by The Learning Company," a statement from the group said today. "Examples of sites that are currently blocked in the category include the [University of California at Davis] Department of Viticulture & Enology."
According to the software maker's CyberNOT list search engine, the university's wine-making program's Web site is indeed blocked as of today.