Net filter laws could create unworkable federal oversight

Shawn P. McCarthy

Pornography filtering rules set at the federal level might have to be enforced at the local level, if HR 4600 is enacted.

But it's unclear exactly what the bill means by filtering, how a filter must work and how stringent it must be at catching unacceptable content. This puts schools and libraries in the position of having to decide on their own.

HR 4600 also mentions certification to confirm that schools and libraries have installed filtering software. Again, it's not clear whether certification should be self-policing or administered by an authority that guarantees filters are in place and working.

Without a direct measure of compliance, it's theoretically possible that a school or library could simply declare itself compliant without ever installing a filter.

If this all sounds confusing, it is. The law, in one form or another, has been kicking around on Capitol Hill for nearly two years. Now it's in the spotlight again because Texas Gov. George W. Bush mentioned it during the last presidential debate.

To read HR 4600, go to and enter the bill number on the second search line. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) is a sponsor on the House side. The Senate version was recently attached to an appropriations bill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

Finding the right fit

Historically, such proposals have been either specific to the point that it would cost a fortune to enforce them, or too general about what's required. They have tended to languish and die in committee.

Bush didn't cite a specific bill, but he implied he endorses the Republican-backed HR 4600 that would require schools and libraries to use Internet filtering software or lose federal dollars for Internet access. He made it sound simple: 'If kids get on the Internet, there's not going to be pornography or violence coming in.'

Filtering can occur at several points across the Internet and can be applied in several different ways. Which is best? A filter that runs on a client computer filters differently from one that runs at the firewall. Search engines offer protected searches, but they don't protect uniform resource locators entered in the address line. Instant messaging and streaming video can sneak around most popular filters but sometimes come with their own sets of filters. There are also e-mail filters and message board filters.

No filter provides a 100 percent answer. No filter affects all types of digital media, unless it overfilters to the point of no access.

Perhaps the best way to filter is at the firewall or proxy server that connects a LAN to the Net. Such servers can be set up with white lists or black lists. A white list of, say, 200,000 URLs can tell the proxy server to recognize only a small subset of the Net. The rest of the Internet doesn't exist to the proxy. But what about students who want access to topics not covered in those 200,000 URLs?

There are other technologies besides proxies, such as byte-level filtering and pattern recognition, but the limited-access issue is the same.

A growing problem

Black lists take a different approach. They don't limit Net access to a specific subset but instead strive to maintain an ever-expanding list of bad sites that should not be accessed. This is a losing battle, because hundreds of objectionable new sites come online every day.

It's difficult to argue against Net filtering to protect kids. But it's equally difficult to spell out filtering requirements legally. There are far too many variables and technical issues to be outlined in a single bill. That has doomed such proposals to failure.

Congress would be better off establishing a set of standards and best practices. Such standards might say that Internet filtering, like a card catalog or a set of encyclopedias, should be present in every library. But it should be up to each school or library to make its own decisions and installations. Funding shouldn't be tied to this issue'it's too difficult to define a proper filter.

Librarians and school administrators know that if user actions and access logs reveal unwelcome facts about what is happening under their auspices, they must find protection'especially if filtering for kids becomes a recognized industry standard.

The federal government shouldn't back itself into a corner where it might have to pay for some sort of oversight of filtering enforcement.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at

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