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Windows on the Web
-- by Diganta Majumder
The thorny issue of free speech on the Internet acquired increasing urgency as a coalition of free-speech organizations, online publishers and Internet-related businesses filed an appeal against the Communications Decency Act (CDA) with the U.S. Supreme Court.
During oral arguments, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor heard debates over whether the industry's screening or filtering software can be effective in keeping children away from digital pornography. Industry analysts agree the open nature of the Web makes it impossible to monitor every home page, newsgroup and chat room. However, ISPs and commercial online services, which may be at risk for sites over which they have no control, remain hopeful that Congress will simply require monitoring software, or at least allow its use as a defense to avoid fines and jail time.
The most popular filtering program is Spyglass' SurfWatch (see Cover Story, August 1996). The product, which currently blocks more than 25,000 sites, lets you decide which sites to allow or deny access to based on a list of filters.
The World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed another approach to filtering, called the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). This cross-industry group's goal is to devise a set of standards that enable providers to voluntarily label their content, and independent labeling services to associate additional labels with content others create.
Net Shepherd Inc. (NSI) has created a PICS-compatible database of more than 300,000 Web sites. By using PICS-compliant software, such as Internet Explorer's Content Advisor or NSI's daxHound, you can access NSI's Internet Content Rating Service to filter Web content. AltaVista has also joined forces with NSI to incorporate a filtered search.