Vicky Rideout

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women and young girls may find it difficult to access critical sexual health information on the Internet due to government-mandated filtering software designed to protect adolescent eyes from seeing pornography, according to a new report.

The report, released Tuesday and published in the Dec. 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health philanthropy organization, which funded a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The study was created to examine three levels of filtering configurations: least restrictive, intermediate and most restrictive, and looked at 24 health information categories, including gay and lesbian, abortion, breast cancer and herpes. Researchers used six of the most common search engines: Yahoo, Google, AOL, MSN, Ask Jeeves and Alta Vista. They then tracked the results that were blocked.

The study found at the least restrictive level, filters incorrectly blocked an average of just 1.4 percent of the health sites. At the maximum restrictive level, filters blocked nearly a quarter–24 percent–of important health sites with legitimate medical information.

If the topic was sexual health, overblocking–a term used to describe filters restricting access to legitimate, non-pornographic Web sites–increased, going from 9 percent of incorrect blocking at the least restrictive level to as much as 50 percent of Web sites surveyed at the most restrictive. The sites included government Web pages such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health’s sites on sexually transmitted diseases, and the Food and Drug Administration’s Web page on birth control failure rates, said Kaiser Family Foundation vice president Vicky Rideout.

Other Web sites that filters blocked were, Planned Parenthood’s Web site and a Web site that sells Trojan condoms.

While the anti-pornography filters blocked sexual health sites, they also failed to fully block pornographic sites, the report found. Pornography was blocked 87 percent of the time at the least restrictive setting, and 91 percent of the time at the highest filter configuration.

Low-Income Families May Be Most Affected By Improper Filtering

“Stricter configurations do not do a better job at blocking out pornography,” Rideout said at the press conference Tuesday. These findings are important because “the Internet has become an incredibly important destination for Americans of all ages seeking health information.” Young people especially turn to the Internet to seek sensitive, confidential health information privately and anonymously, she said.

While use of Internet filters is a personal choice in American households, how they should be used at public schools and libraries has been the subject of debate for several years now. The Children’s Internet Protection Act that became law in December 2000 requires filtering software at schools and libraries that use federal funds. Libraries have fought the Children’s Internet Protection Act all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the filtering technology violates the First Amendment right of free speech. A decision from the Supreme Court is expected in late winter or early spring of next year.

The other problem with filters, notes the study’s lead author, Dr. Caroline Richardson, is that many poor families who rely on public library computers for information are often the same ones who lack access to health care and health insurance, and might even be some of the sickest and neediest cases. Critics of filtering contend the technology shouldn’t be designed to make personal judgments that could stymie a person’s right to get information.

“When you look at what’s being filtered, there are political biases at work,” said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association in Washington, and a panelist at Tuesday’s press conference. Conservative political biases, Sheketoff argued, could prohibit young girls and women from accessing medical information online about birth control or abortion, for example, or keep a young boy who thinks he might be gay from getting information as well.

Michael McGee, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., agreed. He noted that sexual education programs are increasingly truncated or eliminated entirely in some schools. Also, the White House and the upcoming Republican-controlled Congress plan to pursue a more aggressive agenda for abstinence-only education. (The Bush administration has itself removed information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health sites about condom use for prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and about the relationship between breast cancer and abortion.) In the current political environment, McGee said, the Internet is a key source for sexual health information. Filter use “means a teen-age girl who goes online looking for information on emergency contraception may not be able to do it in time to prevent a pregnancy,” he said.

Pornographers Have Hijacked a Large Part of the Internet

Filter advocates point out the technology is an important household tool in screening out potentially harmful material a child might accidentally or intentionally see on the computer.

“The pornographers have hijacked a large part of the Internet,” said Donna Rice Hughes, a panelist at the press conference and president of Enough is Enough, a nonprofit organization based in Great Falls, Va. that advocates Internet safety for families. “Children are not safe when you have unrestricted access.” The study, Rice Hughes said, “tells me the filters are working.”

But others disagreed, saying the study highlighted the flaws in filtering, not strengths.

“Filtering provides about two minutes of protection on an unsupervised computer,” said Nancy Willard, director of Responsible Netizen at the Center for Advanced Technology in Education in Eugene, Ore., which teaches children how to effectively and safely navigate the Internet. “It’s dangerous to think we can protect our kids in electronic playpens.”

Six types of filters were examined in the study: CyberPatrol, 8e6, SmartFilter, Websense, Symantec and N2H2. Representing the industry perspective at the panel was David Burt, public relations manager for N2H2, a Seattle-based company that holds 40 percent of the school-filter market. Burt said the study showed the filters effectively blocked pornography and only “block a little of what they’re not supposed to block.” He also noted the filters no longer accidentally block important breast cancer information, which he acknowledged was a problem in the past.

Organizations posting medical information online aren’t usually aware that their Web content is being blocked. Richardson, the study’s author, said filter companies could create a single Web site for Internet users to check if legitimate medical information offered by health care sites is being blocked.

N2H2 said it already provides such a service, though Burt added that a consolidated site would be a possibility.

Katrina Woznicki is a freelance journalist in Washington.

For more information:

Kaiser Family Foundation–
“See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for
Online Health Information”:

Journal of the American Medical Association–
“Does Pornography-Blocking Software Block Access to Health
Information on the Internet?”:

Enough Is Enough: