- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Internet users can access most health-information sites even when their computers have pornography-blocking filters, says a study in a leading medical journal.

"This suggests that filtering software set to block pornography will not necessarily have a serious impact on access to general health information," said Dr. Caroline R. Richardson, lead researcher of the study, which appears in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Proponents of software filters on computers in schools and libraries were pleased.

"This is a fabulous study," said Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough is Enough, an anti-pornography group in Great Falls, Va.

It finally "laid to rest" the argument that if a filter blocks pornography sites, it also will block breast-cancer sites, said David Burt, spokesman for the N2H2, a filtering company in Seattle.

Instead, he said, the study showed that not a single breast-cancer site was blocked when the least restrictive filters were used.

But Emily Sheketoff of the American Library Association (ALA) was adamant that public libraries should not interfere with patrons' right to information.

"Filters censor," she said.

The study was designed to find out which Internet sites would be affected by filters, as 73 percent of schools and 43 percent of public libraries have installed some kind of filtering software.

Dr. Richardson and her colleagues tested seven pornography-blocking programs including America Online's Parental Controls at low, medium and high restriction levels.

They tested the programs on 3,987 Internet sites, including ones on health topics unrelated to sex (e.g., diabetes, alcohol, suicide); sexual health topics (e.g., herpes, safe sex, birth control); health topics involving body parts (e.g., jock itch, breast cancer); and politically sensitive health topics (e.g., abortion, lesbianism, rape).

More than 500 pornographic sites also were tested.

The researchers found that when software filters were set at their least restrictive levels to block only pornography they blocked 87 percent of pornographic sites, but only 1.4 percent of health information sites.

When the filters were set at moderately restrictive levels, 90 percent of pornographic sites were blocked and 5 percent of health information sites were blocked.

At the highest restriction level, 91 percent of pornography sites were blocked as well as 24 percent of health information sites.

The settings of the software filters are key, said Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which underwrote the study.

Many young people use the Internet to look up sexual health materials, she said, noting that a 2001 Kaiser study found that 44 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 had used the Internet to research pregnancy, birth control or AIDS.

If schools or libraries used the most restrictive filter settings, however, 50 percent of sites on "safe sex" would be blocked, Ms. Rideout said.

Pornography-blocking software remains a political issue. In 2000, Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which required schools and libraries to install pornography-blocking software on computers used by minors or lose their eligibility for some forms of federal funding.

The ALA and others sued to stop the CIPA requirement for libraries, and this year a federal circuit court struck down the act as unconstitutional. The ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

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