When it comes to filtering software performance, Jeff Fox, publisher of Consumer Reports (CR) has this analogy: “One in five restricted sites can be accessed when filtering software is in place…How would you feel about using a seatbelt that failed 20 percent of the time?”
In a report, entitled “Digital Chaperones for Kids,” the consumer watchdog notes that “the federal government has not been effective at restricting children’s access to sexually oriented material online. The Supreme Court struck down one law, the Communications Decency Act, on First Amendment grounds.”
On the upside, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which was passed in December, restricts a child’s access to online content, requires schools and libraries that want federal funding to filter objectionable Internet content.
However, Fox notes, preventing access to undesirable content — whether at home or in school — is no easy task, even when filtering software is firmly in place.
In conducting its research CR tested six products configured to 13- to 15-year olds: Cyber Patrol, Cybersitter 2000, Cyber Snoop, Internet Guard Dog, Net Nanny and Norton Internet Security 2001. The study also evaluated America Online’s parental controls, Young Teen (for 13- to 15-year olds) and Mature Teen (for the 16- to 17-year-old bracket).
Prices for these products range between $39 and $80.
The study tested the filtering products against 86 Web sites that contain sexually explicit content or violently graphic images or promote drugs, tobacco, crime or racial hatred.
“All of the filters, except AOL, allowed at least 20 percent of the objectionable sites through. While AOL’s Young Teen control did the best by far, allowing only one inappropriate site through its entirety, it blocked 63 percent of the sites that contained legitimate content,” Fox said.
To see whether the filters interfered with legitimate content, the study also tested the products against 53 Web sites that featured legitimate educational content on questionable topics, such as abortion rights and gun control.
“Some of the blocked sites included the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-discrimination site, and Sex,Etc., which is Rutgers University’s educational site for teens by teens,” Fox noted.
In fact, Peacefire, a site that provides instructions on how to bypass filtering products, was blocked by AOL, Cyber Patrol and Cyber Sitter. Net Nanny did not block it.
“Filtering products are no substitute for parental involvement,” Fox concluded. “According to Jupiter Research, seven out of 10 parents handle this issue by being present when their kids are online. Only six percent use standalone filtering software.”
Meanwhile, filtering advocates were posting their opinions on Declan McCullagh’s politechbot.com, a site that addresses issues on privacy, free speech, the role of government and corporations, antitrust and more.
In a posting on the site, David Burt, the former operator of filteringfacts.org, insists that the sampling by CR is “absurdly” small.
“With millions of Web sites, obviously, you need to get a large sample, at a bare minimun 10,000 unique URLs. Consumer Reports tested only 86. That is simply not enough,” according to Burt.
“The problem of a small sample is compounded by the fact that the sample is not random. The author of the report obviously had a bias against filter, and using a purposefully selected sample under these conditions is a serious invitation to abuse.”
Burt also noted that the test was remiss in its evaluation of AOL Young Teen “because it is a list of pre-approved sites, rather than a list of excluded sites. The AOL Young Teen setting block, probably, 99 percent of the Internet. It is not something that a school would use as a filter.
“In addition, the s
tudy did not test the filters used in schools and libraries. The most popular products in the education space — CyberPatrol Server version N2H2, I-Gear, WebSense, SmartFilter and X-Stop — were not included in the testing.”
The CR study can be found in its entirety at ConsumerReports.org.