General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

technology.law / J. Michael Jimmerson
© American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

J. Michael Jimmerson is a lawyer, author, and technology consultant. He is the co-author of A Survival Guide for Road Warriors , a best-selling book on mobile computing for lawyers, published by the ABA. His next book, Windows for Lawyers , is scheduled to be released in Fall 1998. He can be reached by phone (414/427-5400), e-mail ( jimmer@legalcounsel.com ) or the Web ( www.legalcounsel.com ).

Browsing the Internet is like strolling through a big city. Lots of interesting things to see and learn. Most are good, even educational, but the seamy underside can rear its ugly head at any moment.

Parents can protect their children by using software tools such as NetNanny (www.netnanny.com) or CyberSitter (www.cybersitter.com) to filter out what sites the kids can explore. Especially for younger children, these tools really make sense.

Filtering software employs a couple of different techniques. Some (NetNanny, for example) check against lists of known sites that are not suitable for children (such as pornographic sites). This type of filtering software depends upon current lists of "bad sites." The software developer constantly scans the Internet to find inappropriate sites and also depends upon individuals to submit "bad sites." Like virus signatures, these must be updated regularly to be effective. The other technique of filtering software (CyberSitter, for example) checks for words or phrases that indicate unsuitable content (such as words describing sexual organs
or contact). Although either type of filtering program works reasonably well, they are far from perfect.

Sites that work from lists of bad sites depend upon a subjective judgment of what constitutes a "bad site." Interestingly enough, a significant number of adult Web site owners support these filtering efforts by adhering to various standards that indicate the adult nature of their sites. Still, these lists are criticized for supporting the agenda of a particular group. Advocates of free speech generally support voluntary compliance but cringe at the thought of censorship by any group—either government or private.

The phrase filtering technique is not without problems either. These programs often eliminate too many sites, including some that might have genuine educational value. For example, if your child is doing a research project on Italian painters, it might block access to any sites with nude paintings. This is very similar to banning books in the library just because they have some objectionable language (think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye). There are really no easy fixes for these problems. Parents must balance their desire to protect their children against these defects in the filtering software.

Beyond protecting children, these filtering programs are making their way into the business world. Don’t want your employees checking out Playboy’s website when they should be working? Add it to the list of prohibited sites. But why stop there? You probably don’t want them checking out sports scores either, so let’s put ESPN’s SportsZone on the list too. And don’t forget sites where they can check stock prices. Let’s get rid of CNN Financial News ( www.cnnfn.com). Where does it stop?

Management and IS staff might be in favor of such harsh tactics but it sends a bad message to employees: "We think so little of you and distrust you so much that we are not going to take any chances on your web browsing." Some firms are even more extreme and justify withholding Internet access at the desktop on the ground that employees will just waste time surfing the Web. Well, yeah, that is the idea. Don’t we want to encourage people to be creative? Why deny access to the greatest source of information since the Gutenberg press?

Protecting children is important and filtering software may be appropriate. However, should we really treat our employees like children? Not if we want them to be happy and productive. CL

     


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