RealTime IT News

Do Content Labels Really Protect?

Officials at the Big 3 of Internet portals -- America Online (AOL) , the Microsoft Network (MSN) and Yahoo! -- announced Tuesday that 93 percent of their Web sites are now labeled to prevent children from accessing adult and questionable material, but the real effectiveness of the program remains to be seen.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 74 percent of computers in public schools around the U.S. had filtering technology in place by the end of 2000. The ICRA is now making a push for filtering technology in the home.

Using a free downloadable program distributed by the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), parents can ostensibly keep their children from harm.

A source code check on a MSN search using one objectionable word prompts a user warning that NightSurf.com has offensive material, though if the ICRA filter is turned off, the user can continue on to the site. With the filter in place, children can't visit the site:

<META http-equiv="PICS-Label" content='(PICS-1.1 http://www.rsac.org/ratingsv01.html" l gen true comment "RSACi North America Server" for "http://www.nightsurf.com" on "2000.06.13T20:20-0800" r (n 4 s 4 v 0 l 4))'>

Of course, the remaining seven percent of offensive content on AOL, Yahoo! and MSN will likely still give parents a fit, such as George Carlin's "An Incomplete List of Impolite Words," which hasn't been labeled yet and available on a Yahoo! e-shopping page.

Armed with the latest version of ICRAfilter, it's impossible to visit some of the racier sites on Yahoo!, even some seemingly innocent Web pages. With the default filtering settings established, access is blocked to every Yahoo! room except for finance, travel and the Yahooligans! areas.

The filter is certainly effective, at least until the child goes down into the taskbar and disables the program in the "Suspend Filter" area, or goes into the Task Manager and ends the ICRAsrv.exe and ICRAui.exe programs. It's a loophole most children of the 21st century can take advantage of and one many less-technical parents are unaware is even possible.

For Windows users, this means setting up an administrator persona and separate logins for each member of the family, to ensure children can't change the settings from their account. For Apple , Sun Microsystems and Linux users, it doesn't matter; the software is only compatible with the Windows operating system, version 95 and later. ICRA officials were unavailable for comment on timetable for bringing other platforms into the filtering fold.

Microsoft is one of the leading members of the ICRA coalition, which includes Cable & Wireless , Bertelsmann Foundation, AOL, VeriSign and Verizon .

So far, more than 15,000 users have downloaded the ICRA filtering program. Officials are leery of users downloading the program to act as "proxy parents" for their children's online activities.

To counter that potential problem, the ICRA and other organizations are promoting an awareness campaign.

Dick Thornburgh, chair of the committee that released a May 2 report entitled, "Youth, Pornography and the Internet," through the National Research Council on behalf of Congress and the Departments of Justice and Education, said in a statement that technology alone isn't the answer.

"Our study found that technology cannot provide a complete -- or even nearly complete -- solution," he said. "Indeed, though some might wish otherwise, no single approach -- technical, legal, economic, or educational -- will be sufficient to address all of the relevant issues. Rather, an effective framework will require a balanced composite of all of these elements, and real progress will require forward movement on all of these fronts."