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Technology no panacea

The tools that help parents protect their children from online smut are far from foolproof.

Today's Communications Decency Act ruling leaves it up to parents to protect their children from online smut, but experts say the few tools they have to help them are far from foolproof.

There are two technologies that can help block access to objectional material: filtering software to close off certain categories of sites and ratings systems similar to the viewing guidelines for motion pictures. The ratings work with the filtering software or the browsers to help control which kinds of sites kids can see.

The filtering software blocks access to the sites that contain certain key words and phrases associated with sexual material. The ratings systems rely on Web site administrators voluntarily filling out a profile that describes their content.

Opponents of the CDA have argued that these two technologies are a better alternative than government regulation for safeguarding children from "indecent" material on the Net. "We still believe that it is far preferable to government censorship laws," said Ann Beeson, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the organizations that sued the government over the CDA.

But even Beeson says that filtering software alone is no panacea. "It definitely has problems," she said.

She explained that filtering software doesn't always catch everything and sometimes blocks access to legitimate sites such as the National Organization for Women because they use a key word like "sex." The filtering software sometimes also blocks access to sites about social issues involving violence or sexuality, such as rape or homosexuality.

And even though many online services offer such software for free, experts say it is still not easy for parents to use. "Installing it and setting it up is not trivial," said Jeff Fox, senior editor of Consumer Reports, which printed a report on filtering software in May.

Fox said he tried to access 22 sites that contained sexual material or hate speech using four filtering products: Net Nanny, SurfWatch, CyberSitter, and Cyber Patrol.

"None of them blocked all the adult sites we tried to get into," he said.

The combination of these factors mean that many parents are simply not using the technology that is supposed to make the CDA unnecessary. "We found that the vast majority of people, whose kids go online, are not using blocking software," Fox said.

Some experts say the rating systems work better. The PICS rating technology proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium lets Web developers label sites with invisible tags that indicate what kind of content it has. Users can then adopt a ratings system created by an organization they trust, like the Parent Teachers Association and program their browsers to access only sites that meet the content standards set by that organization.

Web sites have not yet widely implemented PICS (short for Platform for Internet Content Selection). But its popularity is growing, according to proponents of the standard such as the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"These technologies have continued to improve," said Jonah Seiger, the center's policy analyst. "You can turn off blocking software or PICS, but you can't turn off government regulation like the CDA."

Seiger and other CDA opponents argue that it is better to fall back on technology, even imperfect technology, than to resort to censorship. But it would also be a mistake to think that technology--instead of their parents--can protect children.

"Ultimately, there is no 'quick fix' to this problem. The only real solution is parental involvement with their kids' online activities," said David Sobel, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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