Internet Filtering and Protecting Kids Online
Guest: Donna Rice Hughes,
Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002, 11 a.m. ET
A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation this week shows that Internet filters -- used by parents, schools and libraries to keep children away from sexual or violent content on the Internet -- sometimes accidentally block access to Web sites that deal with important health issues. (See "Study: Web Filters Block Health Information," The Washington Post, Dec. 11)
Donna Rice Hughes, author of "Kids Online: Protecting Your Children In Cyberspace," joined TechNews.com on Dec. 12 to take questions about the report and other Internet safety issues. Rice Hughes served on a congressional panel examining children's safety online, and is president of Enough Is Enough, a non-profit organization that advocates Internet filtering software and other "parental controls" to monitor children's Internet use.
An Edited Transcript Follows:
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Good morning, and thanks for joining us today. Ms. Rice Hughes, you would think that anything that helps protect kids while they're on the Internet is a good thing -- especially filters. But some people say that filters can work overtime and block children's access to Web sites they might need to get to. What is the real deal on filtering technology?
Donna Rice Hughes: The Kaiser Family Foundation released a well-designed piece of research that found that filters are highly flexible, and that they do a very good job at blocking pornography while allowing access to appropriate material such as health information.
The findings of the study are consistent with the opinion of pro-filtering advocates and Congress over the years.
Washington, D.C.: What do you make of the new "kids.us" domain name, designed to be a safe, kid-friendly zone on the Internet? Is the Dot-Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act just a bunch of political lip service?
Donna Rice Hughes: I had the opportunity to work with Congress on this legislation, and to advise NeuStar, which is managing the new dot-us-dot-kids domain. I believe that if the intent of Congress is to have a domain that contains only wholesome content and Web sites for kids that is free from the intrusion of pornography, sexual predators and other types of inappropriate content and activity, that this domain will be another effective tool for parents.
It's important to understand that there is no silver bullet approach. It's a combination of safety rules, software tools and good content.
Mill Valley, Calif.: There's a great story in washingtonpost.com today about the new kids.us domain. Do you think that domain will attract enough users to become a real tool for parents?
washingtonpost.com: Read the story here.
Donna Rice Hughes: It has the opportunity to attract enough users. Content providers must post to this domain for it to be available. The second challenge is for parents, educators and kids to know about the domain so they can choose to use it. But it has tremendous potential.
Arlington, Va.: What are the top three things parents can do to "filter" harmful Internet material from their children, without compromising useful information? A lot of parents want their children to be informed and not live in a bubble, but it seems to be a Catch-22.
Donna Rice Hughes: It's a combination of safety rules and software tools. First recommendation is to parent your children online. But no parent can keep up with intrusive pornography and sexual predators. Therefore, the use of your choice of filtering tool is very important.
Most filters and parental controls allow the parent to configure the filter at an age-appropriate level. I also encourage parents to use filters that allow flexibility and also allow the parent to override an inappropriate blocked site if necessary.
The Kaiser study shows that when filters are set appropriately to block pornographic material only, they block about 90 percent of the pornography and about 1.4 percent of appropriate health and sex ed information.
If you have a younger child, you may want to block other categories of content besides pornography, such as sex education sites, or the category of games or gambling. All of the major filters have dozens of categories of content that you can allow or disallow. It's the parent's choice.
College Park, Md.: The study claims at the most restrictive settings, the filters block 91% of pornographic web sites, and 24% of health information web sites.
Do you assert that making one quarter of healh information and countless other possibly useful Internet content unavailable at public libraries is worth the effort to limit teenagers to the 9% of unblocked Internet pornography?
In my opinion, the only valid solution is to talk to your children instead of resorting to reactionary (and quite sloppy) censorship.
Donna Rice Hughes: I'm glad you brought that up, because at the "most restrictive" setting, the filters were designed to block, in addition to pornography, nudity, weapons, swimsuits, games, dating, etc. Therefore, at the most restrictive level, it is blocking what it was designed to block.
Now, schools and libraries, according to CIPA (the Children's Internet Protection Act) are only required to block pornography. Period. This is consistent with the least restrictive setting of filters, and in those cases, only 1.4 percent of health information was inadvertently blocked. That is a very good statistic.
The answer that I and others have promoted for 10 years is a combination of safety rules -- which includes good online parenting -- plus software tools.
Nine-in-10 kids have accidentally come across pornography. Twenty to 30 percent of traffic to porn sites is children because the pornographers use intrusive technology, intrusive tactics to trick unsuspecting people, including children, to their Web sites. That's how they get paid. You can't teach a child how to avoid a deceptive pornographer. Or a parent!
For example, gurls.com is a great site for kids, but the appropriate spelling of "girls" is a porn site. Education doesn't cover that. That's where the tools come in.
Camp Hill, Penn.: Hi, Donna: Are filters available to remove or block all the porn sites which constantly arrive in my e-mail box? We Senior Citizens are thoroughly disgusted at the raw porn which is so pervasive in our e-mail boxes.
Donna Rice Hughes: Many filters can also filter your e-mail. So I would check with your provider or check the filter you're using. If you don't have a filter, I recommend getting one, and often your Internet service provider will provide a control that senior citizens can use to keep out intrusive pornography.
Also remember to report your pornographic spam to your service provider so they can block the spammer's address.
Spam, by the way, is unsolicited bulk e-mail.
Washington, D.C.: My big problem with filtering software, especially as used at work and in libraries... it blocks many sites containing references to homosexuality even though these sites have no porn. This would appear to be a value-judgment being placed on internet availability, and it's a disservice to millions.
Donna Rice Hughes: I agree that there is information that is appropriate that is sometimes filtered. The filtering companies allow for the client, whether it is a business or a library or a home, to configure what categories of content will be allowed or disallowed. For instance, many businesses disallow their employees from going to stock sites, gambling sites, porn sites and any other kinds of sites that don't have any relation to their work, which is appropriate. The libraries can choose what categories of content they want to make available in the public library by law. CIPA only requires them to block pornography. They are not required by law to block anything else. You might want to check and bring your case before anyone who might be blocking categories like homosexuality-related sites and ask them to unblock them.
Washington, D.C.: What about the overwhelming task of monitoring all the content in this .kids.us space to ensure that it is indeed safe for children? Who will be responsible for that?
Donna Rice Hughes: Great question! That was my concern.
I testified before Congress on dot-kids, and strongly urged them to have technologies in place to insure that the content available in dot-kids is indeed what it claims to be, which would involve not only human review, but monitoring -- tech monitoring. Such tools exist. I hope that they will be used -- it's very important for the success of dot-kids.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: Internet filters certainly do a good job, but doesn't it seem that using both filters and teacher supervision is the best possible scenario? If only filters are used, won't it give a false sense of security, given that over 10% of pornography can still be accessed? Seems to me that more focus needs to be paid to structuring the school systems so that there are enough and competent teachers to be available for that supervision.
Donna Rice Hughes: I agree -- I'm going back to my mantra: safety rules and software tools. Supervision, which is under the heading of safety rules, is absolutely critical. Whether it's the school or at home, we must teach our children critical thinking, because they will also encounter computers that don't have filters, perhaps at a friend's house. They need to understand what the dangers are, how to respond. They need to understand why it's important not to give out personal information anywhere on the Internet. Filters are not there because the child is not trusted, but because there are people on the Internet who are not trustworthy. If we begin to teach children the offensive and defensive strategies of being online safely, then they can appreciate the role of the caregiver, and make better choices themselves.
I wrote my book, Kids Online, in order to put an effective tool in the hands of parents and teachers and other caregivers so they would do their part and understand how to implement safety rules, good Internet skills as well as good software tools in any setting, be it school, home or library.
Fairfax, Va.: Why don't we just require that each child's parent or guardian sign a form that indicates filtered or non-filtered Web-surfing at the library?
We already fill out a form to receive a library card, and present the card to check-out a book. It would be no hardship to present the card before surfing the web.
Porn is still a no-no for anyone at the library, child and adult alike. The parental consent is just to remove the filter.
Donna Rice Hughes: That's certainly a possibility, and that would probably be the choice of the library. CIPA, which will be before the Supreme Court next spring, requires filters on all library computers as a condition of receiving federal E-Rate funding for the Internet. But there is a distinction between what must be filtered on a child's computer and on an adult's. Children's must filter out all pornography, including softcore porn. Adult computers must filter out child pornography and other illegal hardcore pornography.
This is another important point -- if a site is inadvertently blocked on either of these types of terminals, the patron only needs to submit a request to the librarian for a site to be unblocked. If the site isn't pornographic, the librarian can and should unblock that site.
Washington, D.C.: What would you do to filter out the real world and current events from children? War is real. Racism is real. The world is a horrible, dangerous place. Would you censor the news?
Donna Rice Hughes: First, I don't believe in censorship. And I support the First Amendment. It is important to understand that not all information is protected speech. Many types of pornography are not protected speech, and especially for children. If a parent chooses to go further, many of the filtering technologies have somewhere between 20 and 40 categories of content that a parent can choose to allow or disallow. For instance, violence is a category that a parent can choose to filter. Weapons is a category that parents can choose to filter. Drugs is another. Jokes, tobacco -- they're all categories. It's the parent's choice. My role is to help educate parents to understand what tools and what information is available to them.
Washington, D.C.: Donna, what is the best software product to use to protect my nine year old from all the sex on the internet. Thanks
Donna Rice Hughes: It depends on your Internet service provider. If you are using a provider that offers parental controls, use those at the appropriate age setting. If you don't have parental controls, you might try a couple of filters for the home market:
One is called bsafe.com, another is familyconnect, and there's surfcontrol. Many of the other filters focus more on schools and libraries. The prices vary, but maybe $30 a year to have the service.
Also - there's a good monitoring tool called Predator Guard, which helps monitor chat rooms and instant messaging. I hope you'll go to my site at protectkids.com and look at how to configure your choice of tool. I recommend for a nine-year-old that you manage their buddy list on instant messaging, and don't let them go into chat rooms. Chat rooms are pedophile magnets.
Baltimore: Wasn't there once legislation that all porn sites would start with xxx instead of www? That seemed like a smart idea to me, and it would make filtering and identification much easier. Do you know about this? Where does this stand?
Donna Rice Hughes: Yes I do know about this - this is an option that we've debated for years -- it's been around for about six years. I was really the only member of the COPA [Child Online Protection Act] commission who supported the concept of an x-rated domain if it was done correctly. If it was done correctly, it would probably have had some very negative response from the porn industry.
To see my views on this and to learn more about COPA, check out my COPA Commission recommendation at protectkids.com.
Washington, D.C.: Do you have any thoughts about adult "lurkers" on Web sites concerning, or aimed, at children? I've also heard that adult fetish sites will recommend innocuous sites and discussion forums as outlets for their own disturbed desires. The idea is that a pedophile could pose as another child to gain access to my husband's young siblings is distressing.
Donna Rice Hughes: I absolutely agree. My focus and the focus of Enough Is Enough for the past 10 years is not only kids' easy access to online porn, but also sexual predators' easy access to children. This is why I highly recommend that you don't allow children in chat rooms, because a disguised predator can pretend to be another child and gain the confidence of your child. Or, they may simply watch them for a period of time before they make contact. They then get the e-mail address, screen name, etc., in the chat room. 89 percent of sexual solicitations online occur through instant messaging and chat rooms.
Safety rules and using the tools to manage those areas is very critical.
Maryland: Oh no! Some teenager "accidently" came across a porn site. What is the world coming to?! They are sure to be mentally disturbed, and violent, for the rest of their lives now. Why don't we just lock them in a closet and shield them from bright light too.
Donna Rice Hughes: The last Kaiser Family study in 2001 showed that teenagers themselves said that they believed that pre-teens and younger children exposed to pornography was very negative, and could harm them in many ways. Teens themselves were saying this. And of course, it always depends on the person who's coming across pornography and the kind of images they see. Softcore pornography is one thing. A 13-year-old seeing a woman being raped or forced to have sex with an animal can be very disturbing. That's not our value judgment. The point is that much of this material is illegal and even softcore pornography cannot be distributed to minors in print and broadcast. The same should be true on the Internet.
VA: I'm a librarian who supports filters. Most of my co-workers don't and they labeled me a traitor for not supporting the ALA position. Oh, all of them have no kids. I do.
Donna Rice Hughes: I would say good for you for sticking up for what you believe. There are many librarians just like you around the country who believe that there is a role for responsible filtering in libraries.
Laura Morgan of the Chicago Public Library works with many of these librarians across the country. I would encourage you to network with other librarians to share your views just for your own encouragement.
Washington, DC: Donna: I have seen some technologies out there that actually used content based filtering, instead of site blocking. It seems much more effective. I read that the pornography industry renames or creates 3 million new Web sites weekly. How can site blockers keep up? Thanks.
Concerned Parent of 3
Donna Rice Hughes: You're correct. Most of the filtering technologies use a combination of site blocking or specific URLs in combination with artificial intelligence, which searches the Internet continually to find new sites that are emerging daily. It's always a challenge for technology to keep up with the aggressive pornographer who is seeking to try to stay one step ahead.
This again confirms my encouragement of safety rules + software tools.
Birmingham, England: It seems as though overactive filters are preventing children from reaching information that could be important to their development. Are you concerned that, in an increasingly filtered society, kids will miss out on important information?
Donna Rice Hughes: It's very important that, when filters are used, that they are configured with knowledge, and appropriateness based on the age of the youth.
Northern Va.: As evidenced by some of the questions here - too many parents are looking for an easy software solution to the problem of parenting in a world where porno and other "bad" stuff is easily available to just about anybody.
IMO, that easy solution does not exist and won't exist anytime soon. Open communication with your kids is the best answer because you can't be there to oversee every minute of their life. Also, put the PC somewhere in plain view, like the family room. That alone can control the issues on your home computer. You'll have to depend on your kids judgement for all that time they are away from home.
Donna Rice Hughes: I agree. This is the safety rules part here. I have a list of a couple dozen safety rules at protectkids.com and enough.org, which I would encourage parents to use. Again, there is no technology silver bullet, nor will there ever be. Parents are the first line of defense in teaching children good Internet safety skills is the most important.
Washington, DC: My wife and I are planning to start a family in the next year, and I have a 2 year old nephew, so protecting children against Internet porn and other issues are now on my mind.
What are the best ISPs for Internet safety? Would an Internet "appliance" (WebTV, etc.) be better for kids, rather than a PC - would it be easier to protect them that way? Thank you
Donna Rice Hughes: I can't make the distinction between whether a computer would be better than WebTV. Both would need software tools. I would first encourage you to find out if the WebTV in your area has some form of parental controls, or your choice of filtering tool can be used on WebTV. For younger children especially, I think AOL has a good parental control program, but if you choose to use a less expensive service provider (and there are many) then I would go back to some of the tools I recommended earlier in the chat.
Takoma Park, Md.: As a minor, I personally resent the implication that children require filtering and constant monitoring to ensure their safety online. My parents currently provide no monitoring whatsoever, nor should they. I am a straight-A student and participate in a variety of activities, none of which are impeded by my unrestricted access to the Internet.
I am exposed to many different images online, some of which may be construed by many as being offensive. But to deny they exist and simply filter them for my "benefit" represents ignorance more than anything else. Violent and sexual images exist, and their originators have the consitutional right to post them on the Internet, and no amount of filtering will or should be able to change that.
My question is why not put the burden on individual parents and school administrators to "monitor" internet use, if at all? Given the rebellious nature of many children, isn't the logical conclusion that being denied access to "harmful" images online will simply compel them to find them through another source? Would you disagree with the fact that seeing such harmful images in a manner that they can be explained is much less harmful than simply forcing a child to resort to other means to get at it?
The definition of "offensive" and "protect" varies so much from household to household and from child to child. The computers of scientologists are filtered by the church so that members cannot view anti-scientologist Web sites. That's another great example of filtering in action.
Would you agree that filtering and censorship are one in the same?
Donna Rice Hughes: You made some good points, and I'm glad to hear that you are mature and have been able to have a mature view about much of the content that is available online.
First point: Much of the pornographic material is not protected speech. We've been working on the law enforcement side because pornographers who produce child pornography and hardcore pornography are not protected under the Constitution.
Second: It is certainly true that kids who want to see pornographic material can often circumvent any type of supervision or control, and again, that's just a fact. The use of safety rules and software tools is to provide a safe online environment from the intrusion of these kinds of pornography and sexual predators. The problem online is much different than material on television. The material on TV passes constitutional muster. If a parent wants to limit that, it's their choice. The Internet does not - there's a lot of illegal and criminal activity. If law enforcement were doing a better job, much of the role of Internet filtering technology would not be as critical at this point.
Third: Filters put the choice in the one who chooses what content to filter. My recommendation, and CIPA's recommendations for schools and libraries, is to block pornography. Schools, libraries, parents or businesses who want to block additional content - that is their choice, and if someone disagrees with that, they should go to the decisionamker in those places and challenge it.
Anchorage, Alaska: What are the best filters out there and where do I get them?
Donna Rice Hughes: Most filters are available online for easy download, or are available through your Internet service provider. Also, there's a good site - getnetwise.org - that has a list of most of the products on the market, and how they work.
Annandale, Va.: Seems like recent findings that internet filters block access to certain health information are indicative of an underlying problem with filters: that parents use them as a crutch to avoid talking to their kids about issues that may make them uncomfortable. What are your thoughts on this hypothesis?
Donna Rice Hughes: In this day and age, if parents are uncomfortable about talking to their kids about sex, it's time they get over it. Sticking our heads in the sand is going to do much more harm than good. Sexual imagery is everywhere, and while my parents talked to me when I was in the 4th or 5th grade, parents now need to start much younger, and parents need to be the ones to introduce their children to sexuality in a way that's consistent with their family's values.
Parents still must parent.
Washington, D.C.: Sometimes filtering porn sites often results in a block to other sites such as medical information sites. But, the NIH is pushing for more accurate health sites because the sites out there that aren't sponsored by the government are crap. So, what difference does it make whether they're blocked or not?
Donna Rice Hughes: Interesting point. The Kaiser study once again showed that when filters blocked only pornography, only 1.4 percent of legitimate health sites were blocked. I think that's a good statistic.
Washington, D.C.: The Kaiser Family Foundation report that came out this week said that filters DO block access to health-related Web sites, though not all the time. What is worse for kids -- not being able to get information they NEED, or occasionally seeing a pornographic image from time to time? You can't escape smutty images -- go to the local news stand and there's probably a copy of Hustler - and not even behind the counter.
Donna Rice Hughes: First of all, if a news stand sells someone Hustler when they're under 17 years old, they're breaking the law. Two, the Kaiser study found that only when the filters were set at settings to block beyond pornography (nudity, violence, lingerie, etc.) did some health sites in fact get blocked. When only blocking porn and sex acts, only 1.4 percent of health sites were blocked. You know, condoms don't work that well. Birth control pills don't work that well. They're not foolproof, but they do a good job.
Washington, DC: Is there some other way parents can make sure their kids can get the information they need but be safe from online porn and other inappropriate material -- without using filters?
Donna Rice Hughes: I think that would be difficult because of the intrusive nature of pornography and predators. A parent could also just limit Internet use to when the parent is present at the computer. Sometimes you still can stumble across a porn site accidentally. Some of those sites employ mousetrapping -- which is technology that keeps you from exiting a site -- it just brings up more porn pictures when you try to get out of a site. Even sitting with your child, you might risk having this happen. I've heard stories of such, where the parent says to the kid "avert your eyes," and more porn keeps coming up, and eventually they just have to shut down the computer. Safety rules and software tools - that's still the best way. In the meantime we're working with law enforcement to get the existing laws enforced on the Internet so that sexual predators won't have the kind of access they now do to our homes, schools and libraries.
Donna Rice Hughes: I would like to remind you that I'm the volunteer president of Enough Is Enough, which is a national nonprofit dedicated to making the Internet safer for children and families. We're a 501(c)3 and if you want more information or want to get involved, please visit the site at enough.org. Safe surfing and happy holidays!
washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today's chat. Visit TechNews.com for updates on future discussions.
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