February 13, 1998 12:00 PM PST

Searching for "clean" content

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One of the hottest online search technology companies--Inktomi--next week will announce a partnership with blocking software maker N2H2 to build a massive Net index for children that excludes links to pornography and other adult-oriented content.

Sites with hate speech or those promoting alcohol use, gambling, or sexually explicit matter or advertisements also will be left out of the directory, according to the companies. A list of thousands of online educational materials will be highlighted.

The index may bridge the gap between civil libertarians--who criticize filtering programs for banning sites with social or artistic value--and parents, who don't want their children to find the "Nasty Girls" home page while searching for information on Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women.

"The search engine will simply not deliver any results that fit in the 'objectionable' categories, particularly pornography," Peter Nickerson, a former educator who founded N2H2, said today. "The kids go to the search engines and type in 'toys' and they are constantly being bombarded with the introduction to pornographic sites. Our search component is designed so that the kids have access to virtually the entire Internet minus the sites that don't fit into an educational environment."

The yet-to-be-named free search engine will launch this spring, and no doubt will be bolstered by Inktomi's high profile. Last fall, the company was recruited by Microsoft to develop and power the software giant's Web-based search engine, code-named Yukon. And Inktomi's freshman effort--HotBot--is one of the most popular search tools on the Net.

N2H2 will help leverage the directory in the education market, where it already has brand power. The company's server-based product, Bess, is used by schools nationwide to bar access to an evolving list of reviewed sites or chat rooms and Usenet newsgroups based on users' settings.

"We were impressed by N2H2's real comprehensive grasp of how to run filtering as a service with a focus on constant updating, and a really good track record with school districts, and people who care about this, like parents and educators," Alex Edelstein, general manager of Inktomi's search business, said today. "Typically search directories [for children] use a process of 'inclusion'--they hand-picked the sites. But there is a limit to what you can do even if you put a lot of people on it. Our site will add a whole new dimension."

Under the deal, Inktomi will power searches of up to 95 million sites once the "offensive" sites contained in N2H2's database are blocked.

Inktomi's effort is likely to compete with search giant Yahoo's diectory for children, Yahooligans, as well as LookSmart. Those search indexes also pledge to count out "Adults Only" sites.

Lawmakers have challenged the online industry to offer quality solutions for limiting minors' access to X-rated content or face regulatory action. There is federal legislation on the table now to require that some schools use software to filter Net access. Another bill makes it a felony for "commercial sites" to provide online material to underaged surfers that is "harmful to minors." (See related story)

But Inktomi and N2H2's new directory aims to outdo filters installed on Net users' computers. Most blocking software limits access to sites based on keywords or reviews, and can be set to filter at various levels. Some parents may only want to prohibit sites containing nudity, while others seek to screen out violent or profane content.

However, filtering programs aren't perfect. Even well-regarded programs such as Cyber Patrol don't block search engine descriptions of smut sites, although it usually bans entry to the actual site. Still, as previously reported, sometimes the filters don't block all the sites.

Without a filtering program, however, youngsters can still get to the Net's "red-light districts" even if their start point is a cleaned-up search engine. N2H2 said adults can use a filtering program along with the new search engine to further protect surfing children. "That can be set up using Bess if the home user is going through an Internet service provider that uses our product," Nickerson noted.

Still, N2H2's product has been criticized for keeping out more than porn sites, as well.

While investigating a potential First Amendment lawsuit against a Southern California library system that used Bess to filter Net access for most patrons, the American Civil Liberties Union said it found that N2H2's database included sites such as Hate Watch, a group that fights online hate group activity; the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates the medical use of marijuana; and Wildcat Press, a well-known gay and lesbian publishing house. In addition, the ACLU charges that Bess didn't allow access to several poetry databases, including that of the University of California at Berkeley.

The company maintains that it will reevaluate any site based on a simple request, and could subsequently unblock the site. "The level for the [search directory] will be similar to Bess. Our thought right now is to take a middle-of-the-road approach," Nickerson said. "We're trying to keep out, for the five-year-olds and 17-year-olds, sites that are objectionable for both levels. We haven't gone through our entire list yet."

Despite the fact that free speech advocates object to mandatory Net filtering policies for public schools and libraries, Ann Beeson, an ACLU national staff attorney, said products such as the Inktomi/N2H2 search directory will give parents a good mix of options for their children. She adds, though, that users should get full disclosure about what sites they will be barred from entering. "We call for that explicitly. All of these products should make public the list of sites that they block," she said.

 

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