Internet Filters Often Block Sexual Health Information, Study Finds
Internet filters developed to block access to pornography on school and library-based computers often block access to sites that include information on sexual health, according to a study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation published in the current 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 filter programs at three different levels -- "least," "intermediate" and "most" restrictive. Researchers searched for information on 24 health issues, such as birth control and other sexual health concerns, 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 about 25% of health sites. However, the programs blocked a "much higher" percentage of sexual health sites: 9% at the least restrictive level and 50% at the most restrictive level (Schwartz, New York Times, 12/11). The Web sites that the filters blocked included 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 level and 91% at the most restrictive level. A poll included in the study found that one of 20 school districts and library systems surveyed that use Internet filters set the filters at the least restrictive level (New York Times, 12/11).
According to Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the levels of filters that schools and libraries use are "key" because many children and teenagers use the Internet to obtain health information. A 2001 Kaiser study found that 44% of individuals between the ages of 15 and 17 used the Internet to research pregnancy, birth control or HIV/AIDS (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 12/11). Caroline Richardson, a researcher at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study, 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 schools and libraries use filters to block access to online pornography or risk a loss of federal funds. Each facility may determine at which level they wish to set the filters. 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 this year struck down the part of CIPA that affects libraries, and the Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a Bush administration appeal of the decision (New York Times, 12/11). 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).
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