Bess filter blocks Time magazine but not hardcore porn

On the eve of its IPO, Internet filtering company N2H2 receives some bad marks from the Censorware Project.

By Janelle Brown
July 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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The Censorware Project has certainly been diligent in its two-year existence online. This loose coalition of volunteers dedicated to proving the fallibility of filtering software has produced four major reports debunking the claims of popular products like Cyberpatrol and Websense, by compiling and examining lists of the Web sites that these filters block.

On Tuesday, Censorware released its latest report, titled "Passing Porn, Banning the Bible." It takes on the popular Bess software created by N2H2, a husband-and-wife-owned company that named the software after the family dog. With N2H2 just days from going public -- the first of the filtering software publishers to attempt an IPO -- the report was particularly biting.

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Bess is used by schools in a dozen states, boasts 4.5 million users and claims to block students' access primarily to adult sites, but also to hate sites and sites that contain bomb-making instructions, information on murder, suicide, drugs or lingerie, nude pictures and other content deemed unsuitable for children. It also blocks access to chat sites that would allow kids to send and receive real-time messages.

But Jamie McCarthy, Censorware co-founder and co-author of the report, says, "N2H2 has been making some pretty egregious overstatements about what its software can do."

N2H2's claim to fame, according to its Web site, is that it uses "people, not computers, to decide if a Web page contains objectionable content." If this is true, says McCarthy, he'd like to know why the following sites were blocked by Bess: Mother Jones magazine, portions of Time magazine, several ISPs, an organization promoting comics for girls, a baseball newsletter and, ironically, Feminists Against Censorship. He also points out that N2H2 offers a blanket block of the entire genre of "free Web pages" -- services like GeoCities, Tripod and Angelfire -- eliminating student access to literally millions of pages, the majority of which have no-porn policies in place.

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What's not being blocked, McCarthy says, are more than 285 hardcore porn sites -- established porn sites like http://www.hardcoresex.com and http://xxxfetish.com, which are listed in the Yahoo database and are easy for any curious child (or diligent N2H2 employee, for that matter) to find.

Filtering software, apparently, isn't the end-all answer to protecting children online -- especially when students are blocked from potentially useful research resources and allowed into porn sites instead. And, as McCarthy points out, N2H2's claim that it hand-examines the Web is literally impossible: "You can't examine every new Web site -- 2 million pages are added a day to the Web, and no one can keep up with that."

In its defense, N2H2 offered a company statement pointing out that it is possible for software owners to unblock a site, or for site owners to request a reevaluation. But, as it graciously conceded, "Censorware has reminded all of us that categorizing Internet content is a time-intensive task, and no one company will ever be able to completely monitor the World Wide Web. However, without some kind of filtering service/solution, the chance of a child being exposed to the Internet's 'dark side' would be so much greater than it is with existing, specifically Bess, solutions."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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