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Content-control software, also known as censorware or web filtering software, is a term for software designed and optimized for controlling what content is permitted to a reader, especially when it is used to restrict material delivered over the Web. Content-control software determines what content will be available on a particular machine or network; the motive is often to prevent persons from viewing content which the computer's owner(s) or other authorities may consider objectionable; when imposed without the consent of the user, content control can constitute censorship. Common use cases of such software include parents who wish to limit what sites their children may view from home computers, schools performing the same function with regard to computers found at school, and employers restricting what content may be viewed by employees while on the job. Some content-control software includes time control functions that empowers parents to set the amount of time that child may spend accessing the Internet or playing games or other computer activities.
In some countries, such software is ubiquitous. In Cuba, if computer user types a dissent keyword, the word processor or browser is automatically closed, and a "state security" warning is given.
This article uses the term "content control", a term also used on occasion by CNN, Playboy magazine and the New York Times. However, two other terms, censorware and web filtering, while more controversial, are often used.
Companies that make products that selectively block Web sites do not refer to these products as censorware, and prefer terms such as "Internet filter" or "URL Filter"; in the specialized case of software specifically designed to allow parents to monitor and restrict the access of their children, "parental control software" is also used. Some products log all sites that a user accesses and rates them based on content type for reporting to an "accountability partner" of the person's choosing, and the term accountability software is used. Internet filters, parental control software, and/or accountability software may also be combined into one product.
Those critical of such software, however, use the term "censorware" freely: consider the Censorware Project, for example. The use of the term censorware in editorials criticizing makers of such software is widespread and covers many different varieties and applications: Xeni Jardin used the term in a March 9, 2006 editorial in the New York Times when discussing the use of American-made filtering software to suppress content in China; in the same month a high school student used the term to discuss the deployment of such software in his school district.
Filters can be implemented in many different ways: by a software program on a personal computer or by servers providing Internet access. Choosing an Internet service provider (ISP) that blocks objectionable material before it enters the home can help parents who worry about their children viewing objectionable content.
Those who believe content-control software is useful may still not agree with certain ways in which it is used, or with mandatory general regulation of information. For example, many would disapprove of filtering viewpoints on moral or political issues, agreeing that this could become support for propaganda. Many would also find it unacceptable that an ISP, whether by law or by the ISP's own choice, should deploy such software without allowing the users to disable the filtering for their own connections. In addition, some argue that using content-control software may violate sections 13 and 17 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 1998, a United States federal district court in Virginia ruled that the imposition of mandatory filtering in a public library violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
As the World Wide Web rose to prominence, parents, led by a series of stories in the mass media, began to worry that allowing their children to use the Web might expose them to indecent material. The US Congress responded by passing the Communications Decency Act, banning indecency on the Internet. Civil liberties groups challenged the law under the First Amendment and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Part of the civil liberties argument, especially from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was that parents who wanted to block sites could use their own content-filtering software, making government involvement unnecessary.
Critics then argued that while content-filtering software might make government censorship less likely, it would do so only by allowing private companies to censor as they pleased. They further argued that government encouragement of content filtering, or legal requirements for content-labeling software, would be equivalent to censorship. Although at severe risk of being sued under charges such as copyright infringment, trade secret violation, or breach of license agreement, groups such as the Censorware Project began reverse-engineering the content-control software and decrypting the blacklists to determine what kind of sites the software blocked. They discovered that such tools routinely blocked unobjectionable sites while also failing to block intended targets. An example of this tendency was the filtering of all sites containing the word "breast", on the assumption that this word could only be mentioned in a sexual context. This approach had the consequence of blocking sites that discuss breast cancer, women's clothing, and even chicken recipes. Similarly, over-zealous attempts to block the word "sex" would block words such as "Essex" and "Sussex". For some reason, one filter blocked looking up the word "swallow". Content-control software has been cited as one of the reasons Beaver College decided to change its name to Arcadia University, as content-control software had been blocking access to the college Web site.
Some content-control software companies responded by claiming that their filtering criteria were backed by intensive manual checking. The companies' opponents argued, on the other hand, that performing the necessary checking would require resources greater than the companies possessed and that therefore their claims were not valid.
Many types of content-control software have been shown to block sites based on the religious and political leanings of the company owners. Examples include blocking several religious sites (including the Web site of the Vatican), many political sites, and sites about gay/lesbians. X-Stop was shown to block sites such as the Quaker web site, the National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law, the Heritage Foundation, and parts of The Ethical Spectacle. CYBERsitter blocks out sites like National Organization for Women. Nancy Willard, an academic researcher and attorney, reported on the close relationships between conservative Christian organizations and filtering software companies providing filters in U.S. public schools and libraries. From her review of publicly available documentation, she concluded that seven of the filtering software companies were blocking Web sites based on religious or other inappropriate bias.
Most content control software is marketed to organizations or parents. It is, however, also advertised on occasion to facilitate self-censorship by people struggling with internet addiction. Those obsessed by online pornography or gambling, chat rooms or the internet in general, may wish to prevent or restrict their own access. A number of accountability software products such as Covenant Eyes or X3Watch have recently appeared: many such, marketed as self-censorship or accountability software, are promoted at churches and via religious media.
Microsoft's MSN Messenger silently removes all messages with a reference to the search service Scroogle's URL. Filters may also give false negatives, something that affected the Horniman Museum.
The site Peacefire.org posted information about some pages that were blocked and it was then added to the blocklist. Solid Oak Software has vowed that Peacefire's reports about CYBERsitter "will be blocked wherever they may be."
Content labeling may be considered another form of content-control software. In 1994, the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) — now part of the Family Online Safety Institute — developed a content rating system for online content providers. Using an online questionnaire a webmaster describes the nature of his web content. A small file is generated that contains a condensed, computer readable digest of this description that can then be used by content filtering software to block or allow that site.
ICRA labels come in a variety of formats. These include the World Wide Web Consortium's Resource Description Framework (RDF) as well as Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) labels used by Microsoft's Internet Explorer Content Advisor.
ICRA labels are an example of self-labeling. Similarly, in 2006 the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP) initiated the Restricted to Adults self-labeling initiative. ASACP members were concerned that various forms of legislation being proposed in the United States were going to have the effect of forcing adult companies to label their content. The RTA label, unlike ICRA labels, does not require a webmaster to fill out a questionnaire or sign up to use. Like ICRA the RTA label is free. Both labels are recognized by a wide variety of content-control software.
The Voluntary Content Rating (VCR) system was devised by Solid Oak Software for their CYBERsitter filtering software, as an alternative to the PICS system, which some critics deemed too complex. It employs HTML metadata tags embedded within web page documents to specify the type of content contained in the document. Only two levels are specified, mature and adult, making the specification extremely simple.
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