Surfing smut is their job
March 12, 1999
by Tom Spring
(IDG) -- Their motto is "To Surf and Protect" and their job is to scour every inch of the Web, ferreting out cult rants, pornography, and violence.
They are surfers working for The Learning Company, owners of the filtering software program Cyber Patrol. The product is one of many tapping into a market of concerned parents, schools, and employers eager to block access to noxious and distracting material on the Web.
In Cyber Patrol's struggle to tame the Net, it has employed a half-dozen parents, former teachers, and moonlighting students as Internet reviewers. Sitting at computers in a small carpeted room on the first floor of a nondescript building in this Boston suburb, the team looks no different from any other group of office workers.
Today, four mom-and-pop-type surfers enter keywords like "sex" into popular search engines and turn up endless reams of pornographic Web sites. "We've already seen about 95 percent of these," says Debra Greaves, list service manager.
Cyber Patrol adds 800 to 1200 sites a week into a dozen verboten categories such as Partial Nudity, Satanic/Cult, Gross Depictions, and Drugs/Drug Culture. These are all part of what it calls the CyberNot list.
Every day, 5 million Cyber Patrol users can download an update to a list of filtered sites that resides on their hard drives. The product is a private-sector alternative to government censorship, Greaves says. Users can select the type of sites they want blocked.
All sites checked are either ignored or added to three broad databases. "Offensive" pages wind up on the CyberNot list and are blocked. Sites considered wholesome enough for children's viewing are placed on the CyberYes list. A Sports/Entertainment list includes sites deemed unproductive for employees working at companies worried about efficiency.
"At first I was shocked," says Tammy, a former pre-school teacher turned researcher. (She and the other Cyber Patrol surfers prefer identification only by first name.) "Now it's just the same stuff everyday."
On her monitor, a photo of a nude woman emerges for the umpteenth time that hour. She quickly clicks a pull-down menu and checks off Adult Pics from a list. "I don't need to go any further," she says matter-of-factly and moves on to another XXX Web site.
The task is daunting, Greaves says. "Three years ago, it was manageable, but today we can barely keep up." She estimates 1000 sites are launched daily -- most of them pornographic.
Across the room, Cathy is becoming frustrated while searching dozens of links deep in AltaVista for a site she hasn't already found. "Sometimes it feels like you'll never find a new porn site. Then you find the proverbial needle in a haystack."
Most researchers who work for Cyber Patrol have a good sense of humor. The ones who don't, quit the first week, Greaves says. And then there are those who think it would be fun to surf smut for a living. "When they get here and see we aren't fooling around, they leave disappointed."
For others the job is rewarding.
"I like to think I'm making a difference," says John, a father of four, as he combs through a subscription to PornoMail. The e-mail service sends ten new adult Web site URLs to its clients daily. Internet researchers must have teaching or parenting experience to qualify for the job.
The researchers constantly challenge their own moral judgments. Every single site blocked and categorized by Cyber Patrol is manually placed on the CyberNot list. Cyber Patrol representatives believe this is the fairest and most efficient way to filter the Net. They point out that competing filtering programs rely heavily on word-blocking.
A search with Cyber Patrol will not filter out Superbowl XXX or breast exam sites. The company says its program is the only filtering program among a dozen that relies completely on human reviews.
As a result, researchers rely heavily on each other when making judgment calls.
When Tammy found a Web site earlier in the day renouncing Christianity in harsh terms, a debate ensued. "At first, I thought I would categorize it as Intolerant, but after talking it over we decided to let it go."
Severe as the criticism was, the site didn't "advocate prejudice" -- a main criteria for deeming sites Intolerant.
Publishers who object to their site being blocked can appeal the decision to an oversight committee. The group represents a number of viewpoints and does not include Learning Company employees.
Not just smut
Cyber Patrol has added new features over time, like a way to prevent children from giving their names, addresses, or phone numbers to strangers in chat rooms. Another feature limits Internet access time.
Business use of Cyber Patrol has grown faster than home use, jumping 57 percent in the past six months. A corporate version lets managers bar employee access to anything that might be considered a time-waster: sex sites, newspapers, travel sites, personal finance, sports, and entertainment.
Schools and libraries make up 40 percent of Cyber Patrol customers. America Online users have free access to the software as part of their membership. Anyone else wanting it must pay between $25 and $40. The program provides free daily updates to the CyberNot and CyberYes lists for three months after purchase. Subsequent subscriptions for updates cost $29 yearly.
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