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Medical News

Does Pornography-Blocking Software Block Access to Health Information on the Internet?

January 7, 2003

The Internet has become an important tool for finding health information, particularly among adolescents. Concerns about confidentiality, coupled with the fact that many teens do not have their own health providers, make adolescents' access to Internet information especially important. More than 70 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 say they have used the Internet to look up health information. About 40 percent have searched for information on pregnancy, birth control, HIV/AIDS, or STDs. One in four have researched problems with drugs or alcohol; 17 percent have searched for information on depression or mental illness.

The Child Internet Protection Act, passed by Congress in 2000, mandates that schools and libraries install pornography-blocking software on computers used by minors. Otherwise, they will be ineligible for some forms of federal funding. CIPA, struck down by a circuit court, is on appeal to the Supreme Court. Currently, 73 percent of schools and 43 percent of public libraries use Internet filters of some kind.

Blocking software can erroneously filter out Web sites that address issues of health and sexuality. The authors developed a computer model to simulate information-seeking by adolescents, and tested six software blocking packages commonly used in schools and one product commonly used on home computers, each under a variety of blocking configurations, to determine the extent to which health information is blocked in error.

Researchers compiled search results from 24 health information searches and 6 pornography searches, then classified each site's content as health information, pornography, or other. They submitted search terms to six Internet search engines among the most popular with teens: Yahoo, Google, America Online, Microsoft Network, Ask Jeeves, and Alta Vista. Search terms came from the categories of: health topics unrelated to sex (e.g., diabetes); health topics involving sexual body parts, but not sex related, (e.g., breast cancer); health topics related to sex, (e.g., pregnancy prevention); controversial health topics (e.g., abortion); and pornography.

The products for schools and libraries tested in this study all allow the network administrator to specify a custom-blocking configuration by specifying topics or categories. Investigators called 20 school systems and libraries and found wide variability in the blocking configurations, and that none was using a vendor's default setting. Consequently, researchers defined three configurations for each product to represent extreme choices and a middle position. The least restrictive setting blocked only pornography. The moderately restrictive setting blocked pornography and other categories such as illicit drugs, nudity, and weapons. The most restrictive blocking configuration was set to block all topics that could plausibly be blocked by a given school or library, offering access only to news, health, education, finance, search engine, and job search sites.

Set on the least restrictive settings, all seven products (Websense v.4.3.1, 8e6 v4.5, SmartFilter v.3.0.1, CyberPatrol [SuperScout v.], N2H2 v.2.1.4, and AOL Parental Controls) blocked a mean of only 1.4 percent of health information Web sites. However, searches on "safe sex," "condoms," or "gay" blocked almost 10 percent of attempts to access health results. The mean pornography-blocking rate at this setting was 87 percent.

At moderate settings, the mean blocking rate was 5 percent for health information and 90 percent for pornography. At the most restrictive setting, health information blocking increased substantially (24 percent) but pornography blockage was only slightly higher (91 percent).

"For general health information searches, at their least restrictive settings, overblocking by filtering software poses a relatively minor risk," the authors concluded. "Moreover, more restrictive blocking configurations substantially increased health information blocking with only slight improvement in pornography blocking: the main effect of the more restrictive settings is to block other categories of controversial material besides pornography."

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Adapted from:
Journal of the American Medical Association
12.11.02; Vol. 288: P. 2887-2894; Caroline R. Richardson, M.D.; Paul J. Resnick, Ph.D.; Derek L. Hansen, B.S.; Holly A. Derry, M.P.H.; Victoria J. Rideout, M.A.

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.



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