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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cybercensors on Patrol, but Confused

WASHINGTON -- She may hold a high place in the pantheon of American poets. But as far as some computer censorship programs are concerned, Anne Sexton is not much more than a three-letter word: sex. Because her name has those letters, s-e-x, screening programs designed to protect children from Internet smut won't let them see material on the late poet, either.

Close to a dozen software censoring products are being marketed to parents as an alternative or supplement to federal Internet content controls overturned by a judicial panel and now under Supreme Court review. The judges who struck down the Communications Decency Act last year found home-based censorship preferable to the government restrictions. They said the strength of the Internet and of liberty is the same: "chaos and cacophony."

Trying to carve that chaos into manageable chunks is a handful for the programs set up to shield kids from the wilder side of the Net.

In blocking the likes of the Deviant Dictionary, the programs may deny reams of information on AIDS prevention. Yet many of the walls against porn can be broached by the determined user.

A foolproof filter "is impossible to develop because of the subjective nature of what is considered objectionable," PC Magazine says, reviewing new programs.

Still, they may help children explore the Web "in relative safety." That's a tall order in a medium connecting some 40 million people using more than 9 million computers to find material that constantly changes.

The cybercensors try to do it with lists of sites and words that will set off a trip wire. Sex, violence and language are among up to a dozen subjects that parents can attempt to screen out.

How well do they work? A grown-up "Junior" downloaded a few of them and went looking for love in all the wrong places. When a program called Net Nanny discovered Junior's raunchy tour, it slapped a "violation" label on the screen, shut down the system and primly recorded the misdeed.

Another screening program, Cyber Patrol (motto: "To surf and protect"), blocked information not only on Sexton, but on Sri Lanka, an exotic country it seemed to mistake as erotic.

Sexton's work might be too strong for some parents' tastes. But while allowing people to see material on other controversial artists, Cyber Patrol drew the line on one with "sex" in her name. Searches on "sextuplets," "Essex" and "Sussex" met the same fate: "Access denied."

Net Nanny allowed a lingering exploration of the Hustler magazine home page before it cottoned on to what was happening and stopped it.

But it denied access to a discussion of erotic needlework. Junior had to disable Nanny by using the adult password before eavesdropping on mystifying messages:

"Are there male parts to cross-stitch also? Like I'd bother to waste my time!"

"I was thinking ... it might work as a bean bag chair."