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Software to filter workers' access

Net filtering firm SurfWatch Software releases a Professional Edition, aimed at keeping workers off unauthorized Web sites during business hours.

Net filtering firm SurfWatch Software today released a Professional Edition, aimed at keeping workers off unauthorized Web sites during business hours.

Filtering software has been a choice among parents and schools to keep children out of the Net's many "red light districts," such as sites containing pornography, gambling, and hate speech.

But filtering also has been widely criticized by civil liberties groups that charge that the technology blocks socially important speech such as sites about breast cancer, safe sex, and homosexuality. Groups such as People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued public libraries for installing filters, charging that doing so is censorship and therefore unconstitutional.

SurfWatch, a division of Spyglass, began to make its software more accessible last year by putting it on a proxy server, and found that 20 percent of those downloading it were corporate clients, even though it wasn't designed for corporations, said Theresa Marcroft, director of marketing for SurfWatch.

"More and more companies are rolling out widespread Net access to their employees," Marcroft said. "And they're also adding Internet acceptable use policies," noting that the firm's research found that the number of companies with formal Net acceptable use policies has increased from 31 percent to more than 50 percent in the last nine months.

"The logical next step for them is software tools like ours," she said.

She said corporate clients have expressed concern about Net access affecting overall productivity, as workers use it to make vacation plans, shop, chat, job hunt, and generally surf non-work-related sites. Similarly, many corporations have had difficulty with employees' use of email for personal communication.

Another worry for companies with widespread Net access is liability. Marcroft cited the firing last month of two Salomon Smith Barney analysts for sending pornography over company email, which can be considered creating a hostile work environment. She said employees chatting online could give away proprietary company information or data that constitutes insider trading, and since the communication comes from the company, it could look as though the firm is endorsing it, Marcroft said.

Bandwidth also is a concern for companies, she noted; as employees download movie clips and other large files, access for business purposes can be slowed.

SurfWatch's Professional Edition contains 15 categories for sites to be filtered: astrology, entertainment, games, general news, glamour or intimate apparel, hobbies, investments, job search, motor vehicles, personals or dating, real estate, shopping, sports, travel, and Usenet.

Marcroft pointed out that the biggest concern among clients is blocking sexually explicit content, but many want to simply monitor the other categories "to see if there is an issue there." The SurfWatch Professional Edition allows for that.

It also allows for multiple levels of filtering, blocking by time of day or days of the week, and customization of access by individual or department, she said.

With over-filtering an issue for blocking access for children, it could present a problem for companies in that they may need access to sites blocked by the software. A pharmaceutical company that wants to filter sexually explicit content could need access to breast cancer sites, for example.

Marcroft said SurfWatch publishes its filtering criteria and also has a staff of people who check each potential site before it gets added to the company's database of filtered sites.

SurfWatch Professional Edition runs on Netscape and Microsoft Proxy Servers and the Check Point Firewall-1. Pricing starts at $995 for a 50-user license. Electronic versions are available for downloading this week; the CD-ROM will be available later this month.