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High court's ruling boosts Internet filters

Last week's US Supreme Court decision to block a law that banned Internet materials deemed "harmful to minors" was reviled by social conservatives worried about the effects of pornography on children. But the ruling was good news for companies that make software to let parents filter out undesirable Internet sites.

The court ruled 5-4 that while the government has an interest in protecting children from inappropriate materials, it must do so in a way that places the least constraint on the free speech rights of adults.

The court held that the voluntary use of filtering software would often work better than a federal ban on indecent materials, because US law can't be applied to the many websites based in other countries. And filtering software affects only those who want protection, leaving others to view whatever they want.

Bob Kessinger, director of operations for CyberPatrol, one of the most popular parental control programs, was pleased with the ruling. "It's validated what we've basically been saying for quite some time now, which is that Internet filtering is an effective means for monitoring and filtering the Internet for children," he said.

Marc Kanter, vice president of sales and marketing for Solid Oak Software Inc., maker of CYBERSitter filtering software, said federal law reaches only to the US borders. "A great percentage of the inappropriate content comes from outside those borders," he said, "and the only solution at this time is a technological solution, which is an Internet filter."

Filters have themselves inspired controversy. The software has often been criticized, either for unjustly blocking inoffensive websites or for letting through too many indecent or violent sites. Manufacturers acknowledge their products aren't perfect, but say the technology has steadily improved.

Early programs relied on searches for words and phrases, or used a list of websites known to contain sexually explicit or violent content. Today's filters still work this way, but with refinements.

CYBERSitter, for instance, uses an "intelligent content recognition engine." Kanter said it can instantly examine words on a Web page and accurately decide whether the page contains offensive material. CyberPatrol reads the text tags associated with images, and the titles of files linked to a website. These bits of text often contain clues that can lead to a more accurate response to the site.

Still, both Kanter and Kessinger say filtering products still make mistakes. Those inevitable errors are one reason civil libertarians were outraged by another federal law, requiring public libraries that receive federal money to use filtering software on their Internet terminals. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation challenged the law, saying the software could unfairly prevent library patrons from visiting innocent websites on such topics as sex education. Last year, the Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the law.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks the court erred in the library case. But he's happy with last week's decision.

"We think that filters are a better alternative," Tien said. "But at the same time, just as the Supreme Court recognized, filters aren't perfect."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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