World Wide Web Can Ensnare Children: `Smut Blockers' Provide Filter, but Are Not Foolproof Tools

Article excerpt

Allison Evans is a typical cyberteen: She prefers to read her magazines on-line, spends more time answering e-mail messages than she does on the phone, and is always one computer click ahead of her parents.

Concerned that Allison's favorite chat room, People Connection, might connect her to the wrong people, Brent and Doris Evans of Fairfax recently installed a block on the site through a parental controls function offered by their Internet service provider America Online. But the 16-year-old has already discovered a way around it.

"Somehow Allison got her own password and bypasses ours," Mrs. Evans said. "We have no idea how she did it - and she's not even a computer genius. So that was really useless."

Now that the Supreme Court has pulled the plug on the Communications Decency Act, software that shields children from indecent, offensive or otherwise inappropriate words and pictures on the Internet is touted as the indispensable tool for worried parents.

But beware: Even the makers of the so-called "smut blockers" admit that their products aren't perfect. Children will still stumble upon Web sites containing pornographic or other adult materials and those who make a special effort will be able to break through the software's boundaries.

"None of these is going to block it all," said Mike Kangior, vice president of government affairs for X-Stop, a new blocking software released in March. "There's no industry standard for effectiveness, but we want to set an effectiveness level of 95 percent or better."

X-Stop works by locking out specific addresses its technicians have determined to be inappropriate for children. Its address book is packed with more than 50,000 names and between 200 and 500 per day are added to the censor list. Other softwares, like Cybersitter, use a combination of key word filters and direct address blocking to protect young Web surfers.

Both methods allow for loopholes. With more than 40 million Web sites - whose addresses can be changed daily - it's impossible to keep track of every one that's bad for children. Meanwhile, key word filters keep out some quality sites while admitting some of the sleaze. For example, sites offering information on sex education or breast cancer might not be permitted, but a pornographic site with an innocent name could slip by.

Parents who believe that blocking technology is still better than nothing may be alarmed to learn that some local school systems and public libraries don't use it at all.

"We've evaluated a number of different softwares and decided not to install any," said David Kreisberg, a member of the Montgomery County Public Schools Global Access Networks Team. He said logistical issues, as well as skepticism about how well the technology works, have prevented the team from buying any of the Web blocks.

A committee will continue to evaluate the issue, but in the meantime the 10,000 computers hooked into the Internet at 180 schools can be used to access just about all of the good, bad and ugly on the Internet. So can the machines in 11 of the 14 branches of Virginia's Fairfax County public libraries, since no blocking software is installed.

Carol Hyatt, volunteer chair of the technology committee of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, concludes, "Parent supervision is the best Web block technology I know about."

She's careful to preview Web sites before accessing them with her own children, as well as with the elementary school students who work with her on a home-page design project. …