Just as national governments use filtering software to block certain websites, parents can use parental control software to monitor and filter their children's Internet use. These programs allow parents to block access to a list of URLs of their choosing, or to limit access to certain content by content scanning—blocking access to URLs or web pages that contain specific words.
When content scanning is in use, if your children enter a URL with a word like "love," "sex," or "nude" (such as http://www.love.com), or they try to access a page that contains similar words, the parental control program refuses to grant access. However, URL scanning does have limitations, since the program does not understand the context and cannot, for example, distinguish between scientific and pornographic use of the word "sex."
While few people argue that parents have the right to decide what their children can see, the debate about parental control software centers on the types of websites that parental control programs block. Most parental control programs block the obvious, such as Condom Country, Playboy, or Hustler. But since new pornographic websites appear every day, the publishers of parental control software must constantly update their lists of banned sites to maintain their programs' effectiveness, which presents a problem of time versus resources. Publishers of parental control software can't afford to hire enough people to visit and check suspect websites, so most publishers use programs that automatically scan websites and search for keywords.
When these programs determine that a site contains too many banned keywords, they store that site's address in their updated list of banned websites. The result is that parental control programs often block many innocent websites. Even worse, many blocked sites have no knowledge that they're being blocked by a particular parental control program.
The biggest problem with parental control programs is the criteria they use to block specific websites. Besides blocking the obvious pornographic sites, many parental control programs also venture into the shady area of political censorship as well. Here are some examples:
Net Nanny (http://www.netnanny.com) has blocked the Banned Books page at the University of Pennsylvania (http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/banned-books.html).
I-Gear (http://www.symantec.com) has blocked The Wisdom Fund (http://www.twf.org), an Islamic non-profit organization that provides information about Islam and opposes anti-Islamic bias in the media, and the Human Rights Campaign (http://www.hrcusa.org), an organization working to protect lesbian and gay rights.
CyberPatrol (http://www.cyberpatrol.com) has blocked such "dangerous" and "sexually explicit" sites as Envirolink (http://www.envirolink.org), an animal rights website; the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org), an organization devoted to promoting religious diversity and acceptance; Adoption Links Worldwide (http://www.alww.org); and the MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression (http://www.mit.edu:8001/activities/safe/home.html).
SmartFilter (http://www.securecomputing.com), installed on computers in Utah schools and public libraries, blocked access to web pages that included the Holy Bible, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, antidrug information, all of Shakespeare's plays, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the Koran.
Perhaps the most controversial parental control program is CYBERsitter (http://www.cybersitter.com), which has blocked both NOW (National Organization for Women, at http://www.now.org) and the Human Awareness Institute site (http://www.hai.org), which promotes workshops for personal growth focusing on love, intimacy, and sexuality.
While most parental control programs allow sites to appeal a block, CYBERsitter seems to have constructed a wall of self-righteousness. For example, when NOW appealed its ban by CYBERsitter, Brian Milburn, the CEO of Solid Oak Software (CYBERsitter's publisher) replied, "If NOW doesn't like it, tough … We have not and will not bow to any pressure from any organization that disagrees with our philosophy."
A heated battle has occurred between CYBERsitter and Bennett Haselton, cofounder of Peacefire (http://www.peacefire.org), an Internet anticensorship site. After Bennett posted information on the Peacefire site criticizing CYBERsitter, along with instructions for disabling various parental control programs including CYBERsitter, Peacefire was promptly added to the CYBERsitter banned website database.
Peacefire also claimed that during installation of the trial version, CYBERsitter scans the Internet Explorer cache and aborts the installation with a cryptic error message if it finds evidence of visits to the Peacefire site (such as the files peacefire.html or peacefire.gif).
Brian Milburn defended his software by saying, "We reserve the right to say who gets to install our software for free. It's our software—we own it, we publish it, we have an absolute legal right to protect our software from being hacked in any way, shape or form."
In a dispute similar to the Peacefire versus CYBERsitter debate, Microsystems Software, the publisher of CyberPatrol, once filed a lawsuit against two computer programmers, Eddy L.O. Jansson and Matthew Skala, for creating the cphack program, which allows children to uncover their parents' passwords and view CyberPatrol's entire list of more than 100,000 banned websites.
"I oppose the use of Internet filtering software on philosophical grounds," Skala said. "The issue here was to see what does CyberPatrol actually block. Parents have a right to know what they're getting and without our work they wouldn't know."
To avoid a drawn-out legal debate, Microsystems Software announced that Jansson and Skala, the original authors of the cphack program, had settled with the company and granted them all rights to their cphack program. Microsystems then claimed that websites that posted the cphack program were violating the Microsystems Software copyright.
To show beyond a doubt that many parental control software publishers are using questionable tactics, Peacefire ran an experiment, dubbed Project Bait and Switch, to see if parental control programs would block certain content if it was hosted on a personal web page while not blocking the same content on the website of a large, well-funded, and well-known organization. (Read more about it on their site.)
They collected anti-gay quotes from the Family Research Council (http://www.frc.org), the Concerned Women for America (http://www.cwfa.org), Focus on the Family (http://www.family.org), and Dr. Laura's websites (http://www.drlaura.com). Then they posted these anti-gay quotes on free websites and submitted the pages anonymously to the publishers of SurfWatch, CyberPatrol, Net Nanny, Bess, SmartFilter, and Websense.
All of the companies agreed to block some or all of the "bait" pages (since they met their criteria for "denigrating people based on sexual orientation"), at which point Peacefire revealed the sites that were the source of these quotes. Surprisingly, none of the publishers agreed to block any of the four originating websites, yet they continued to block the "bait" pages, even though both sites contained identical homophobic quotes.
While this censorship may seem justified to protect children, there's still the question that always surrounds censorship in any form: Who decides what can and cannot be seen?
To help people circumvent parental control programs, Peacefire offers a free program (http://www.peacefire.org/bypass) that can disable a variety of programs, including SurfWatch, CyberPatrol, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, X-Stop, PureSight, and Cyber Snoop. (Unfortunately, the Peacefire bypass program only works under Windows 98.)
Although defeating parental control programs could allow children to access pornography, it also allows them to access a flood of other information at the same time. If you're going to use a parental control program, learn what type of websites they block (and why), and decide for yourself if you want to censor your children's access using someone else's criteria. If you don't want a stranger to tell you what you can and cannot let your children see and read, would you want a parental control program to do the same thing as well?
For more information that argues against censorship, visit Families Against Censorship (http://www.netfamilies.org). For more information about defeating censorware, visit The Censorware Project (http://censorware.net).
As an alternative to parental control programs, consider a child-safe browser instead, such as ChiBrow (http://www.chibrow.com) and SurfMonkey (http://www.surfmonkey.com). Unlike parental control programs that keep a proprietary list of banned websites that even parents can't see (let alone modify), child-safe browsers give parents complete control over which websites a child can access, while also offering the option to block Internet access during certain times of the day or after a specific amount of time has passed.
By offering complete control over the times and exact websites a child can visit, child-safe browsers protect your children while giving them access to educational, scientific, and intellectual websites that a parental control program might have blocked. While there's no substitute for parental supervision, a child-safe browser may be the next best alternative.