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Internet Filters Often Block Sexual Health Information, Study Says

[Dec 11, 2002]

Internet filters intended to block access to pornography on school and library-based computers often block access to sites containing information on sexual health, according to a study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation appearing in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New York Times reports. The study, titled "See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information" and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, tested six popular Internet filtering programs at three different settings—"least," "intermediate" and "most" restrictive. Researchers searched for information on 24 health topics, including birth control and other sexual health topics, as well as for pornographic terms. Programs set at the least restrictive level blocked 1.4% of health sites; those set at the most restrictive blocked nearly 25% of health sites. However, the programs blocked a "much higher" percentage of sexual health sites: 9% at the least restrictive setting and 50% at the most restrictive setting (Schwartz, New York Times, 12/11). Among the sites blocked by the programs were a CDC site on sexually transmitted diseases; an FDA site on birth control failure rates; and a Princeton University site on emergency contraception, the Wall Street Journal reports (Dreazen, Wall Street Journal, 12/11). The amount of pornography blocked ranged between 87% on average at the least restrictive setting and 91% at the most restrictive. In a poll included in the study of 20 school districts and library systems that employ filtering programs, just one said that it set its filters at the least restrictive level (New York Times, 12/11).

Internet Access 'Key' For Youth

According to Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the settings that libraries and schools use are "key" because many young people use the Internet to obtain health information. A 2001 Kaiser study found that 44% of people between the ages of 15 and 17 used the Internet to research pregnancy, birth control or HIV/AIDS (Wetztein, Washington Times, 12/11). Caroline Richardson, a researcher at the University of Michigan and one of the study's co-authors, said, "A lot of teenagers don't go to their doctors with sexual questions, because they're embarrassed or worried about confidentiality, and the Internet is an important way for them to get those questions answered" (Wall Street Journal, 12/11). The Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000 requires that all schools and libraries use software to block access to online pornography or risk losing federal funds. Each facility may determine at which level they wish to set a filter's parameters. According to the study, 73% of public schools and 43% of libraries nationwide use "some type of filtering" (Edwards, Washington Post, 12/11). A federal Court of Appeals recently struck down the part of CIPA that applies to libraries, and the Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a Bush administration defense of the act (New York Times, 12/11).

Reaction

Proponents of filtering programs hailed the results of the study, the Washington Times reports. David Burt, a spokesperson for N2H2, a filtering software company, said that the study "laid to rest" arguments against filtering programs that said filters that block pornographic sites also block access to sites with health information (Washington Times, 12/11). However, advocates for First Amendment rights said that the study highlights the "clumsiness" of filtering programs, according to the New York Times. "Filters are just fine for parents to use at home. They are not appropriate for institutions that might be the only palce where can kids can get this information," Judith Krug, director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said (New York Times, 12/11). Rideout said that an "important facto[r] to remember" is that young people often use the Internet "as a source for sometimes life-and-death information," the Washington Post reports (Washington Post, 12/11). "Filters can strike a good balance between protecting kids from pornography while still giving them access to online health information, but only if they're configured carefully. Otherwise, they can be a serious obstacle, especially on issues such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and birth control," she said (KFF release, 12/10). The complete study is available online. In addition, PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" yesterday reported on the study. A transcript of the segment is available online ("NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 12/10).

A kaisernetwork.org HealthCast of the report's release is available online.

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Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, search the archives, and sign up for E-mail delivery at www.kaisernetwork.org/dailyreports/repro. The Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, by The Advisory Board Company. © 2003 by The Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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