May 14, 2002 11:15 AM PDT

Cingular phones steered away from porn

Customers of Cingular Wireless are being prevented from viewing Web pages containing "objectionable material," such as pornography, on their cell phones, according to two sources inside the company.

Not that wireless Internet customers are missing much; porn images viewed on a cell phone are so pixelated it's tough to tell a nude from a smudge.

Sites can be blocked using a Web filter, software that scours Web pages requested by customers of the company's wireless Internet service. With filters, if certain words are found, the page will be blocked from view.

Generally, Internet service providers stay away from filtering, choosing instead to investigate, then possibly block, Web sites some customers complain about. Providers also let customers set their own preferences.

A Cingular Wireless spokesman said that to his knowledge, the company was not filtering any Web sites. But two employees familiar with the situation said Cingular Wireless customers are blocked from viewing pornographic Web pages on their cell phones. When people try to access the pages, they get an error message instead, the sources said.

Not all Web sites are affected, just those that use a standard called Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). Web page makers use WAP to create a slimmed down version of their sites for cell phones.

For example, the WAP address wap.sex.com can be viewed on cell phones using Verizon Wireless, Nextel Communications and Sprint PCS wireless Internet services. But the same URL entered into a Cingular Wireless device returns the message "your client is not allowed to access the requested object."

Filters intended to keep people from seeing pornographic pages have drawn strong objections from civil libertarians, often because they unintentionally block other Web pages. Some frequently cited examples are filters meant to screen porn pages but that are also blocking medical Web sites.

"They will wind up filtering out far more than sexually explicit material," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program.

Other Internet providers say they don't choose to filter their customers' Web sites. The technological hurdles are among the main reasons why, according to Sprint PCS spokesman Dan Wilinsky. He said Sprint PCS does not use filters.

The Internet's sheer size, in the billions of Web pages, makes it nearly impossible to patrol, Wilinsky said.

"The Internet is the Internet," he added.

Representatives from other wireless Internet providers, like major U.S. carriers including AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless, didn't return calls for comment. It was unclear whether these providers filter content as well.

While it might anger civil libertarians, such a move is likely to appease the tens of millions of parents who are starting to buy their children cell phones, with teenagers among the fastest-growing segment of the cell phone market, analysts say.

Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing analyst Alan Reiter thinks teenagers hold the key to the success of wireless Web surfing and wireless messaging.

Most surveys conclude that adults aren't on the wireless Web, finding the task of using a cell phone's keypad to type in a short message too frustrating compared with the computer keyboard on their personal computers they've already grown accustomed to using.

But teenagers are new to both computers and cell phones. They are more apt to take the time to learn new tasks, like touch-typing on a cell phone's cramped keypad.

"The teens are likely to be key," Reiter said.

A telephone industry hard hit by the downturn in the world economy has been experimenting with the teenaged market for the last several months, populating advertisements with teenagers sending each other text messages.

For example, Motorola's "MotoStyle" campaign and AT&T Wireless's "mLife" advertising campaigns are geared toward attracting teenagers to text messaging and other Wireless Web uses of phones.

 

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