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Porn-Blocking Software & Health Websites

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    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 13, 2002
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      By Emma Young
      New Scientist
      December 10, 2002

      Internet filtering software that blocks pornography sites can still permit
      access to most health information, a major US study has found -- but only if
      the filters are set to their least restrictive levels.

      "In general we found that filters were remarkably good at distinguishing
      between health information and pornography, when set at the least
      restrictive setting," says Caroline Richardson at the University of
      Michigan, US, who led the research. But at highly restrictive settings,
      almost a quarter of health sites were blocked while the relative improvement
      in porn blocking was only slight.

      In the US, library and freedom of speech organisations are fighting legal
      attempts to force internet filters designed to block pornography to be
      installed on all computers in public libraries.

      Highly restrictive filters could prevent teenagers from accessing
      information on birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual
      orientation, says the team. Many young people may not be willing to seek
      answers to these questions from their parents or doctors.

      But even the least restrictive filter settings are unacceptable, says Emily
      Sheketoff, director of the Washington office of the American Libraries

      "These filters permit 13 per cent of pornography and block 1.4 per cent of
      health sites. But if you look closer at the figures, you see that within
      that 1.4 per cent, they block more than nine per cent of information on safe
      sex and 11 per cent of information on gay health issues," she told New
      Scientist. "Young people should have access to this information."

      Shocking stuff

      There is also an issue of quality when it comes to health web sites,
      stresses Tony McSeán, president of the European Association for Health
      Information and Libraries. "From a health point of view, there is some
      shocking stuff on the web," he says. "Fortunately most of the loony stuff
      looks loony and amateurish, but there is some pernicious stuff out there on
      therapies that are not evidence backed."

      Sheketoff argues that young people should be educated on how to use the
      internet effectively. "Parents should not depend on filtering as a tool,
      because it will not protect their children from accessing pornography," she

      Richardson's team started with searches on 24 health and sexuality terms and
      six pornographic terms using six search engines, including Yahoo!, Google
      and America Online. The health terms included some phrases that involved
      body parts, such as "breast cancer".

      The team then tested whether access to the top returned sites was permitted
      by seven widely used filtering software packages, including Websense and
      Symantec Web Security. At the least restrictive settings, the filter
      software blocked an average of 1.4 per cent of health information sites and
      87 per cent of porn sites. At the most restrictive, they blocked 24 per cent
      of health sites and 91 per cent of porn sites.

      "The internet makes a big difference in access to health information," says
      Richardson. "We need to be careful not to inadvertently allow
      pornography-blocking software to cripple the internet as a tool for
      improving health."

      Journal reference: Journal of the American Medical Association (vol 288, p


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