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Filters Block Health Sites

People who use internet pornography filters may needlessly be blocking access to a wealth of health information via the internet. In a review of filtering software it was discovered that schools, parents and others who set their filters to the most restrictive settings only gain marginally greater protection from pornography, but do manage to block many excellent health sites. The findings, published in the Dec. 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, come from a scientifically designed study of six filtering packages that was performed for the Kaiser Family Foundation by a University of Michigan team.

The study has important implications for public bodies such as schools and libraries who may have always struggled with finding the balance between open access and protection from pornography. Paul J. Resnick, Ph.D., an associate professor at the U-M School of Information stated, "much of the policy debate until now has been about whether filters should be installed at all. Our study suggests that careful thought and debate should also precede decisions about what settings to choose." Lead author Caroline R Richardson M.D. pointed to the fact that around a quarter of health sites were blocked when filter software was on the highly restrictive level.

The team started with unfiltered searches for 24 health and sexuality terms, and six pornographic terms, using six search engines popular with teens --Yahoo!, Google, America Online (AOL), Microsoft Network (MSN), Ask Jeeves, and Alta Vista. Some of the health terms were unrelated to sex (for example, diabetes), others involved sexual body parts (such as breast cancer), some were related
to sex (for example, birth control), and some controversial health topics (such as abortion). They then tested whether access to the sites was permitted by seven software packages: N2H2, CyberPatrol, Symantec Web Security, SmartFilter, 8e6, and Websense. All are widely used by schools, libraries, or both. More than 3,000 health and 500 pornography sites were ultimately tested against the
filters.

Certain health search terms resulted in much more blocking -- even at the least-restrictive settings, about 10 percent of health sites turned up by searches using the terms "safe sex", "condom", and "gay" were blocked. The percent of sites from those terms blocked at moderately restrictive settings was even higher, and at the most restrictive blocking setting, several of the more controversial search terms had blocking rates above 40 percent.

The researchers recommend that software manufacturers devote further research to improving their products' ability to discriminate between pornography and sexual health sites.

Note: An executive summary of the study and a link to the complete searching and blocking results will be available at http://www.kff.org. The summary will also be available by calling the Kaiser Family Foundation's publication request line at 1-800-656-4533.

 

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