Computer Professionals Question Impact of Internet Filters

For Immediate Release

For More Information Contact :
Harry Hochheiser at (609)497-9167 hhochheiser@cpsr.org
Duff Axsom at (650)322-3778 duff@cpsr.org

The current rage to filter and block content on the Internet may have a corrosive effect on all that makes the Net democratic and community affirming, the Computers for Social Responsibility (CPSR) said today.

"The real question here is, 'who gets to decide what's appropriate' on the Internet," CPSR board member Harry Hochheiser said at a press conference held by the newly-formed Internet Free Expression Alliance.

"At the Internet Online Summit this week, people will be promoting the use of software tools to `protect' children from 'harmful' content on the Internet. Unfortunately, there's a great deal of misinformation regarding software filters, PICS, and other technological `solutions' to concerns regarding content on the Internet. Some of these tools have troubling free speech and censorship implications," Hochheiser warned.

Hochheiser, primary author of CPSR's "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) document on filtering says people want answers to questions about content issues: "Can filtering programs be turned off?" "I don't want to filter, but I do want to know what my child is viewing. Is that possible?" These and other questions are answered in the Filtering FAQ, which CPSR hopes will serve as a valuable guide for those perplexed about filtering/labeling issues. CPSR's FAQ on filtering can be found on the web at http://www.cpsr.org/home.

Hochheiser said CPSR is critical of two major types of ratings-based systems: those that use the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) platform as well as "stand-alone systems which put vendors in the position of deciding what should be blocked and what shouldn't."

"We've seen several notable cases of abuses of this power, where filtering software has blocked Web sites that shouldn't be blocked, such as the word "breast" for sites which host online discussions about breast cancer. Also, the constant growth of the Internet means that blocking lists are out-of-date within hours," Hochheiser explained.

On the other hand, "PICS ratings avoid the problem of centralized control by software vendors, but they raise other concerns: what if I don't like the ratings systems that are being used? Who rates sites? In theory, anyone can develop a rating system, but in practice, that's likely to be prohibitively difficult and expensive. What happens to sites that are unrated?"

Despite the concerns raised by filtering software, CPSR is sensitive to the concerns of parents and families. In addition to stressing active parental parental involvement, CPSR urges parents to be educated consumers. According to the FAQ, "the use of a filtering product involves an implicit acceptance of the criteria used to generate the ratings involved. Before making this decision, parents should take care to insure that the values behind the ratings are compatible with their beliefs."

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