Companies Bid for Library, School Smut Filters

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Companies Bid for Library, School Smut Filters

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer


High-tech entrepreneurs stand to gain as publicly funded libraries and schools grope for a technical compromise to warring principles: How to protect online free speech, while barring kids from viewing online porn.

"This market has the potential to be a cash cow," said Mike Kangior, a spokesman for Log On Data Corp. of Anaheim, Calif.

Schools' demand for the technology should double the market to $5 million during the next year, said Susan Getgood, director of marketing for Microsystems Software Inc. of Framingham, Mass.

Additional revenues will flow from sales to parents or companies trying to curb their employees' recreational use of the Internet, as well as to overseas buyers, say industry executives.

The market is being stimulated by the Supreme Court's June decision to strike down the 1995 Communications Decency Act, said Kangior, whose company has already sold its smut-filtering software product to 115 school districts, including one district with 90,000 students and 10,000 networked computers.

Any eventual resolution to this dispute between free speech advocates and anti-pornography advocates in schools and libraries will emerge from messy battles among local governments, school boards, civil libertarians, judges and the high-tech companies competing for smut-filtering contracts, say academic experts and industry executives.

"There will be political compromises hammered out at the county and municipal level," even as court challenges are decided and new technology is developed, said Dan Burk, an associate professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

To win a share of the market, contractors are fine-tuning PC-based software designed for parents wishing to block their children's access to online pornography.

While a variety of products, such as Microsystems' Cyberpatrol, bar access to groups of Web pages that contain one or more undesired words, Log On Data's X-Stop product allows librarians or school administrators to fine-tune kids' access to the Web, said Kangior. The X-Stop product can exclude particular Web pages, each of which have their unique Internet protocol number, without inadvertently barring desirable Web pages, he said. The X-Stop product can be installed in the Internet servers owned by libraries and schools.

V-One Corp. of Rockville, Md., has allied with Landmark Community Interests LLC, an Internet consortium based in Charlotte, N.C., to offer an online service that allows parents to configure LCI's Internet servers to exclude undesired Web sites. Although this GuardiaNet service is aimed at the home market, "schools and libraries in the end, possibly, will be a larger market than individuals," said company spokesman Jim Reed.

Libraries across the nation, including ones in Austin, Texas, and in Boston, have become entangled by the dispute.

In Austin, the dispute was triggered in February when two library visitors showed children how to view online pornography and also printed child pornography on a library printer, said Brenda Branch, director of libraries for the city of Austin. Those incidents generated "an immediate media frenzy. ... I had to get control of the situation," she said.

Branch then installed Cyberpatrol filters, she said. By tailoring the filters carefully, the librarians have limited access to pornography on their 52 computers without severely curbing online searches by adults, she said. "We have managed to find a balance. ... The adults for the most part are very satisfied," she said.

In Fairfax County, Va., library officials are drafting a policy on whether to recommend content filters for their 22 Internet computers, said Edwin Clay, director of the Fairfax County Public Library System. The policy will be considered this fall by the 12-person Library Board, which has been appointed by local politicians, he said.

But government-funded libraries face "an extremely delicate problem," said Burk. If they choose to restrict access to some online content, such as pornography, they must do so as narrowly as possible and by the least restrictive method, to ensure that they do not restrict adults' access to the Web, he said. If government officials don't heed these limits, they will be sued by free-speech advocates and will likely lose in court, he said.

Among the possible solutions, said Burk and others, would be the installation of filtering software only into computers located in the kids' section of libraries. This approach has been adopted in Boston city libraries, where 75 Cyberpatrol filters have been bought for computers in kids' sections. Also, libraries may try to offer children a limited menu of Web pages that do not contain pornography, said Burk.

"What I am afraid is that we are not going to be able to find an acceptable balance [between free speech and anti-pornography advocates] and end up with no Internet access in the libraries," said Burk.


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