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ICQ pulls controversial filtering option

America Online's chat service dramatically alters its "objectionable" word filtering option, pulling down its link to a list that blocks phrases that many contend are not offensive.

    America Online's ICQ chat service dramatically altered its "objectionable" word filtering option today, pulling down its link to a controversial list that blocks phrases that many contend are not pornographic or even offensive.

    As first reported by CNET yesterday, ICQ's 28 million registrants who chose to screen incoming messages could have been unwittingly omitting words they might not associate with the Net's red-light districts.

    ICQ's default setting always has been "filter disabled," and people can edit the list. However, until today the service was solely directing users to the ClickChoice Company, whose DirtyWords and MoreDarnDirtyWords lists replace with asterisks not only a wide range of sexually oriented terms but also phrases such as "popculture," "lesbian," "," "safesex," and "," the home page for the National Organization for Women.

    Today ICQ has changed its filtering option.

    "This was a mistake; we never intended to default to ClickChoice," Jeanne Meyer, ICQ's spokeswoman, said today.

    Now when ICQ users enter the Words Lists menu within its Security & Privacy preferences, they will no longer be directed to ClickChoice when they select Web Help to get access to an "objectionable" words list.

    Instead, users are taken to an ICQ page that explains how to set up personal filters. Soon ICQ will add links to a variety of filtering lists that users can import.

    "We've taken down the link to ClickChoice," Meyer said. "We need to give people better choices and to review the lists to make sure they are reputable and meet a range of options."

    ICQ still contends that it will never endorse one list over another. The new Words List page contains the following disclaimer, which will apply when it adds links to new filtering lists:

    "This page contains links to third parties' Web sites, directories, servers, or services. These links are provided by ICQ Inc. only as a convenience," it states.

    Although Meyer said the lists will be reviewed to make sure they are "reputable," the disclaimer states: "The linked services are not reviewed, controlled, or examined by ICQ Inc. in any way, and ICQ Inc. is not responsible for the contents of any such linked services, or any link contained therein. The posting of these links does not imply endorsement of the Services by ICQ Inc.

    "It is your sole responsibility to determine whether the material you may encounter on these sites is acceptable to you," ICQ concludes.

    That filtering tools sometimes block nonsexual sites is nothing new. Civil liberties activists have long warned consumers to review the actual list of sites blocked by Net screening programs and argue that online services such as ClickChoice and ICQ should be more conscious of the tools they offer consumers, as well as clearly disclose when the products go beyond blocking "dirty" words.

    Both ICQ and ClickChoice seemed caught off-guard when they learned they were pointing users to a filtering list that had been highly controversial in the past, and that they had stepped into the middle of sensitive pickle between offering child-safe content and dealing with the widely acknowledged imperfections of filtering technologies.

    ClickChoice's list appears to be identical to one compiled by Solid Oak Software for its Net filtering program, Cybersitter.

    Solid Oak's list caused a storm of controversy almost two years ago when the teen anticensorship organization Peacefire cracked it and revealed that the product blocked sites such as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

    Cybersitter customers typically aren't able to view the list. Peacefire also discovered the similarity between ClickChoice and Cybersitter's lists.

    Solid Oak president Brian Milburn said ClickChoice seemed to be using his company's list without permission. For example, the ClickChoice list includes the phrase "DontBuyCybersitter," a characteristic unique to Solid Oak's filtering program.

    A representative for ClickChoice conceded that he was not sure how the list was compiled.

    However, Cybersitter has found a way to leverage ICQ's jam. It hopes that ICQ users who approve of its list will still use it. ICQ users can import the authorized Cybersitter list via its Web site starting tomorrow.

    "To eliminate any confusion we decided to create an up-to-date list in the ICQ format and make it available publicly," said Marc Kanter, vice president of Solid Oak. "In making this list available to the public, we are in no way excusing ICQ for this obvious disregard of copyright laws."