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Site filters criticized

On the eve of a SafeSurf announcement on filtering technology, an online activist reveals that some blocked sites include gay and lesbian forums and feminist topics.

On the eve of SafeSurf's announcement Monday that it plans to market a server-based filtering technology to ISPs and corporations with intranets, an online activist reveals that some sites blocked by software programs include gay and lesbian forums and feminist topics.

SafeSurf, along with other filtering software products like CyberPatrol, NetNanny, and CyberSitter, keeps its long list of censored sites confidential.

Somehow, Declan McCullagh got his hands on a list of censored sites and newsgroups, and much to his surprise, he found that some filters ban access to sites reserved for discussion of gay and lesbian issues and other topics such as feminism. McCullagh and Cyberjournalist Brock Meeks first published the story in CyberWire Dispatch, a free news service that is edited and published by Meeks.

Filtering technology was developed to demonstrate that there is no need for the federal Communications Decency Act or other censorship laws, but some say that such software is just as restrictive.

"Filtering software is a classic case of a privatized censorship scheme," McCullagh said today. "Filtering software was developed by the industry in a response to government threats, and often the end result is even worse than a true government act like the CDA because you can't fight it."

Ray Soular, chairman of SafeSurf, obviously disagrees and says that censorship is mandatory and that filtering is a choice. "We give parents the right to choose whether they want to use our technology," he said. "We're not forcing them like the government wants to."

SafeSurf wasn't prominent in McCullagh's article, but Soular admits that there is "potential for blocking sites that shouldn't be." SafeSurf is working on developing a feature that will allow users to customize their options.

For now, users simply have the choice of filtering or not. The new technology expected to be announced next week, called the SafeSurf Internet Filtering Solution, filters content at the server level, as opposed to filtering through individual computers, for individuals and employers who are concerned about what their children or their employees get to see online. "People are fed up with downloading software, and this system solves that problem," Soular said.

A consumer simply signs up with an ISP and requests the "family-safe account," which can be configured automatically into the system.

Two databases are complete so far: The "Cyberplayground" is intended for younger children and censors all content deemed inappropriate by SafeSurf, and the "De-black" list censors pornographic sites. SafeSurf eventually plans to offer 20 databases customized for different ages, according to Soular.

Soular said the ISPs can choose to either charge each household $1 to $3 per month for the service or offer it for free as an incentive.

Pricing depends on the amount of subscribers or employees that will use the system. A company or ISP with several thousand employees or subscribers can expect to pay $9,000 with a $2,000 monthly upgrade fee. Small companies and ISPs will be charged a $900 setup fee, with a $200 monthly upgrade fee.

So far, CrossLink, a large ISP based in Washington, D.C., will offer the technology to its subscribers for $3 per month. SafeSurf also is talking to five more major ISPs, one of which is in Europe, according to Soular.

Companies in the Washington area have expressed interest in CrossLink, but wish to keep the selected sites private, according to a CrossLink spokesman. "Let's just put it this way," he said. "A lot of companies and organizations here are politically correct, and they don't want that kind of information to get in the wrong hands."

Employers can give SafeSurf a list to block with topics including gambling, sex, and sports. Employers legally have the right to block sites from employees, but McCullagh says censorship in the workplace is a bad idea. "I don't think it's productive in the long run because employees learn a lot by surfing, even if they do it during their lunch break."