New filter scours servers for illicit content

A Paris-based technology company develops a filter that sends an email alert to customers whenever it finds a lewd picture or photo on a Web site.

4 min read
So long, smut.

A Paris-based technology company Tuesday will unveil a filter that sends an email alert to customers whenever it finds a lewd picture or photo on a Web site. ImageFilter, the newest product from Internet infrastructure provider LookThatUp, is an "image recognition engine" that breaks down photos or drawings into their unique visual attributes.

ImageFilter is the latest in a growing repertoire of products targeted at e-commerce companies that unwittingly host pornographic images, from Web hosting businesses to online auction houses. It's virtually impossible for such companies to monitor hundreds of thousands of pages created by disparate customers around the world.

But government agencies, attorneys and consumer groups are increasingly shifting the burden of cleaning up the smut from the individual offenders to the businesses that enable them to operate. The U.S. market for Internet filtering software will be $1.5 billion in 2004, according to marketing consulting company Frost & Sullivan.

ImageFilter software classifies visual information by color, texture, shape and spatial configuration. It then analyzes the data to create a sort of visual thumbprint for each image that can be compared to other images that may be perceived as pornographic. If a client's server is hosting a questionable image, ImageFilter will send an email alert to that client.

Conventional filters detect offensive words or phrases in blocks of text. Such filters are unreliable and unable to keep up with Internet slang that can sneak past them. Few filters can detect lewd art or photos because a photo's pixels are far more complicated to analyze than blocks of text.

Alex Moha, vice president of business development for LookThatUp, said ImageFilter would be perfect for companies such as eBay, which hosts thousands of products posted by individuals. The San Jose, Calif.-based auction company announced plans last week to ban graphic sexual pictures and relegate steamier items to a "Mature Audiences" area.

"We bring a technology and intelligence to Internet players who have images," Moha said in a telephone interview from New York, where executives will debut their product Tuesday at the Internet World Fall 2000 forum. "All sites with user-generated content--eBay, for example, or ISPs or photo-finishing sites--they all have a need for monitoring. But images are much more difficult to monitor than text. You're only dealing with pixels; there is no code behind it or any context."

Before ImageFilter sends alerts, corporate clients must designate an "acceptance" rating from one to 100. A business that has a high tolerance for offensive images--such as a photo gallery specializing in nude prints--might not want to be alerted until the degree of offensiveness hits 80 or 90. An e-tailer specializing in toys for preschoolers, by contrast, might pick an acceptance rating of five or lower. Clients can customize their tolerances for any offensive behavior--nudity, violence, sexual acts or other potentially controversial images.

The 1-year-old company's first clients were the French police, who have been using an early version of ImageFilter to help find pedophiles since late last year. Detectives nab pedophiles who download child pornography, then hunt for similar photos in other people's hard drives. The French patent office also uses the technology to ensure that patent seekers aren't submitting drawings or photos of previously patented products.

ImageFilter, which resides on the LookThatUp server, costs anywhere from $3,000 per month to $500,000 per year, depending on the usage, Moha said.

Murray Straus, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and a leading researcher on family violence and sexual abuse of children, called the technology "clever." But he worried that the government would eventually require companies to set acceptability limits artificially high or low.

"It boils down see story: Raising the ire of filtering
firmsto a question of who is going to apply the standards," Straus said. "If we have Congress saying, 'Search engines must block this, businesses must block that,' that raises free speech issues."

LookThatUp, founded by scientists from the Image and Multimedia Indexing Group at the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control, isn't the only company trying to peddle image filters to businesses.

German companies Biodata Information Technology and Cobion announced Monday a strategic partnership to develop a powerful new Internet filtering platform for corporate fire walls. The new platform, dubbed i-Watch, will block sexually explicit or potentially offensive images in the workplace. It is scheduled for release to corporate clients in January.

Washington is also embroiled in a political debate over pornography filters, which pit free-speech advocates and civil libertarians against anti-pornography crusaders and the religious right. A recent presidential debate also fueled the filter frenzy, with George W. Bush backing smut-blocking software in public libraries and schools and Al Gore proposing stricter parental control over children's Web surfing.