"People seem to be saying to us, 'We would prefer if you block more,
and allow us to have the discretion to turn it back on,
rather than block less.' "
-- Susan Larson, Surfwatch Software
Net censor sees blue at White House
Published: Feb. 23, 1996
BY HOWARD BRYANT
Mercury News Staff Writer
THE INTERNET has a pretty extensive red light district -- Playboy.com,
Bianca's Smut Shack and the Secret City home page on the World Wide
Web are prime examples.
Now add the White House to the Internet's list of dens of sin.
Surfwatch, a widely used software program that prevents access to, and
downloading of, sexually explicit material on the Internet,
inadvertently blocked access to a page of the White House Web site
recently -- all because a ''White House for Kids'' Web address
contained the word ''couples.''
That's a dirty word in the Surfwatch universe because many sexually
explicit on-line sites use it as part of their come-on. Indeed, an
Internet search for the word produced 3,000 references, many of them
sex-related Web sites. ''It has very different connotations on the
Internet,'' said Susan Larson, director of technical support for Los
Altos-based Surfwatch Software Inc.
But on the White House kids' page, ''couples'' merely referred to the
Executive Branch tandems of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper
The offending electronic address is part of a tour given by First Pet
Socks the cat, and the White House web site itself is among the most
popular on the Internet. Soon after the block went up late last month,
a White House computer systems operator complained he had received
electronic mail from a student who couldn't get access to the kids
page because her parents had installed Surfwatch software on their
Surfwatch fixed the problem within hours. But while the White House
incident may be comical, it points to a larger issue: how to reconcile
pressure to restrict access to questionable sites with the inevitable
misblocks that will occur?
Software such as Surfwatch can be susceptible to ''overblocking''
because it tracks Internet sites for words or phrases deemed
questionable, even though they may have very different meanings in
different contexts. In the past, for example, Surfwatch has blocked
Web pages discussing medical conditions such as breast cancer.
Surfwatch customers, though, like the conservative approach, Larson
''If anything, people seem to be saying to us, 'We would prefer if you
block more, and allow us to have the discretion to turn it back on,
rather than block less,' '' she said.
Indeed, because Surfwatch is designed to give parents greater control,
they can turn off blocks through use of a password.
With the block now gone, the White House page once again is available
to Surfwatch customers, although some might still find it offensive.
For political reasons, that is.