New York, October 2, 2001

Internet filters are hopelessly flawed, according to a comprehensive survey released today by the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Free Expression Policy Project. Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report offers a complete, easy-to-use summary of existing tests, studies, and reports on the over—and under—blocking propensities of the major programs and products designed to filter out Internet sites that are deemed controversial, offensive, or inappropriate for adolescents or children.

Multiple programs, the Report reveals, including Net Nanny, SurfWatch, CYBERsitter, and BESS, blocked House Majority Leader Richard "Dick" Armey’s official Web site upon detecting the word "dick." SurfWatch blocked the home page of the Archie R. Dykes Medical Library at the University of Kansas on account of the word "dykes." I-Gear blocked a United Nations report on "HIV/AIDS: The Global Epidemic," while Smartfilter blocked Marijuana: Facts for Teens, a brochure published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In hundreds of cases, filters blocked artistic and literary sites, human-rights and public health information, and communications dealing with sexuality education and politics. One primary reason is that the technology inevitably must rely largely on key words or phrases such as "over 18," "breast," "sex," or "pussy" (hence, the blocking by X-Stop of searches for "pussy willows"). Even where company employees do review sites, there are massive problems of subjectivity, with the political attitudes of different manufacturers reflected in decisions to block such topics as homosexuality, human rights, and criticism of filtering software. The Report, after summarizing the available studies of 19 filtering technologies, contains an extensive appendix listing blocked Web sites by category: literature and the arts; sexuality education; gay and lesbian information; politics and human rights; and censorship.

"Internet filtering has become a major public policy issue in recent years, and is likely to remain so," writes Project director Marjorie Heins in the Report’s introduction. "We hope that Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report will prove a useful resource for policymakers, parents, teachers, librarians, and all others concerned with the Internet, intellectual freedom, or the education of youth. … Ultimately, less censorial approaches such as media literacy, sexuality education, and Internet acceptable-use training may be better policy choices than Internet filters in addressing concerns about young people’s access to ‘inappropriate’ content or disturbing ideas."


NCAC’s Free Expression Policy Project (Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (Hill and Wang, 2001), an investigation of the history and politics of censorship measures whose claimed justification was the protection of youth. The Report, written by Christina Cho, is available without cost from the NCAC.