The Kaiser Family Foundation Study on How
Filtering Affects Access to Health Information
by Nancy Willard, Center for Advanced Technology in Education
n December 10th, 2002, the Kaiser Family Highlights of the Study.
O Foundation issued a new study, See No Evil:
How Internet Filters Affect the Search for
Online Information. This study is available on their
Under conditions simulating intentional access, one in
ten (1 in 10) sites containing pornography were accessi-
ble. This failure rate was consistent across the blocking
configurations (Least—87%; Intermediate—90%; Most—
91%). Under conditions simulating accidental access, the
site at <www.kff.org>.
filters allowed access to pornography 38% of the times—
Kaiser researchers studied the issue of youth access to
one in three (1 in 3) times.
health information when filtering software has been Kaiser found across all of the health information that
filters set at the least restrictive level blocked only 1.4%
installed. Kaiser studied the six leading filtering products
of the health information sites. They blocked only 5% of
that are used in United States public schools, Smart
such sites at the intermediate level. However, filters
Filter, 8e6, Websense, CyberPatrol, Symantec, and blocked 24% of such sites at the most restrictive level.
A closer analysis of the data reveals blocking patterns
N2H2, along with AOL Parental Controls.
that present significantly greater concerns. In those cate-
They assessed the ability to access sites containing
gories where the subject area is controversial or the sites
12 health information across a broad range of topics, includ- themselves may contain controversial information, the
rate of overblocking was significantly higher. The cate -
ing health topics unrelated to sex, health topics that
gories that stood out included safe sex, homosexuality,
relate to sexual body parts, health topics related to sex,
and drugs. At the intermediate restriction configuration,
and sites presenting potentially controversial health typical of most school settings, the filters blocked one in
four (1 in 4) of the health information sites in these sub-
The six filters used in public schools were set at three
The Kaiser study demonstrates the reasons why it is
different configurations: least restrictive—blocking only both unwise and inappropriate to place reliance on filter-
ing software to protect young people when they are using
the pornography–related category or categories; interme-
diate restrictive—blocking those categories that are most
likely to be considered inappropriate; and most restrictive
—blocking all categories conceivable in a library or
The Danger of False Security and Complacency
Filtering companies and their conservative pro–filtering
school setting. Most public schools have configured their
allies promise that filtering will protect young people on
filtering systems at or above the intermediate restrictive the Internet. This misrepresentation creates a dangerous
level of false security and complacency. It is dangerous to
believe that we can protect young people by establishing
Kaiser researchers also tested the system’s ability to electronically fenced playpens. The snakes can still get in
block access to pornography under conditions simulating and teens can easily get out. Filtering software is not
intentional access and accidental access. To assess acci- infallible, it does not protect against all concerns and it is
dental access, they attempted to access the pornography not, and will never be, present on all computers that our
sites that appeared in the search results when they were young people will access. Filters are not the solution.
seeking appropriate health information. They will never be the solution.
This study clearly demonstrates the concerns about How many school districts are relying on filtering
placing reliance on filtering software. In conditions simu- software, but not teaching students about safe and
lating intentional access, the filters failed to work 10% of responsible use?
the time—one out of ten (1 in 10) sites. Consider that it
would take a curious teen or a staff member at an unsu-
pervised computer a mere two minutes to check out ten
Blocking of Sites Containing Controversial Information
blocked sites to find the one that is unblocked. United or Related to Controversial Subjects
States public schools are spending billions of dollars for The Kaiser study also demonstrates why it is inappropri-
approximately two minutes of protection. ate, under First Amendment standards of access to infor-
Many educators think that filters are protecting stu- mation, for filtering to be used in schools.
dents and therefore it is acceptable to allow unsupervised The leading case in this area is the case of Pico v.
use. In many schools, the blocked URL reports are not Island Trees Board of Education. In this case school board
reviewed on a regular basis. Under such circumstances, it members received a list of “objectionable books” from a
would not take long for students or staff members to conservative parent organization and sought to remove
determine that intentional attempts to access pornogra- those books from their school library. The leading deci-
phy will go undetected and unpunished. sion stated the constitutional standard clearly, “School
Of even more concern is the data resulting from con- boards may not remove books from school libraries sim- 13
ditions simulating inadvertent access. Under these condi- ply because they dislike the ideas contained in those
tions, the filter failed to block access 38% of the time. books.” The Kaiser study has very effectively demonstrat-
Filtering companies want us to believe that by installing ed that there is intentional or inadvertent blocking of
filters we will protect Suzie while she is innocently potentially controversial information or information
searching for information on kitties. Assuming this data related to controversial subjects.
is correct, one out of three times (1 in 3) Suzie makes a At the configuration most likely to be considered
mistake, she will end up at a pornographic site. necessary to protect students from inappropriate material
If Suzie is a young child, then we simply must do a on the Internet—the intermediate restriction configura-
better job of protecting Suzie by keeping her in places tion—filters are blocking approximately one of every four
that are truly safe and by closely supervising all Internet (1 in 4) sites in areas where there is the potential of con-
use. As Suzie approaches her teen years, it is time to teach troversy. This is so even though those blocked sites were
her how to avoid accidentally accessing the wrong kinds identified by the researchers as containing health infor-
of sites; what to do if she has gotten to a wrong site, mation. This pattern is evident in the controversial sexu-
especially if she has been ensnared; how to recognize and al-related categories of “safe sex,” “condoms,” “gay,” and
deal with harassers, perverts, and predators; and her “lesbian.”
responsibilities as a cybercitizen. The pattern is also evident in the category addressing
When people believe in the false promises of the fil- the illicit drug “ecstasy.” The illegal drug filtering cate-
tering companies, they frequently fail to engage in the gories were not blocked at the least restrictive configura-
education and supervision necessary to truly protect tion but were at the intermediate configuration. One in
young people on the Internet. Case in point—the four (1 in 4) health sites addressing ecstasy were blocked
Children’s Internet Protection Act contains extensive at the intermediate configuration.
requirements related to the use of technology protection
measures—but it does not mention Internet safety educa- Health Information Sites Blocked
tion even once. This pattern of intentional or accidental blocking of
potentially controversial information is a matter of high sion-making process, and the blocked list itself. Little to
concern. Consider what other issues might also be subject no information is available about the executives or
to this pattern, including, most specifically, sites that investors whose interests and values may be influencing
present politically controversial information. These sites the blocking criteria and decision-making. Most of these
could easily be blocked in some of the categories selected companies are also serving or pursuing a variety of cus-
at the intermediate configuration level, such as intoler- tomers—including conservative religious Internet service
ance, anarchy, or extremist. providers and repressive third world countries—whose
interests may be impacting the blocking criteria and deci-
Far Removed from Accountability sion–making.
The Kaiser Family Foundation did not address the issue of There is absolutely no public disclosure. Therefore,
lack of public accountability directly. But the fact that the these companies are far removed from accountability for
foundation found it necessary to conduct this study rais- their actions. There is also now strong evidence of signifi-
es concerns about the overall lack of public information cant intentional or accidental blocking of sites that pres-
pertaining to how filtering decisions are made. ent controversial information or address controversial
What the dissent in Pico said was also instructive subjects. We have no knowledge on how or why this
with respect to the use of filtering by public institutions. overblocking is occurring.
14 The dissent said: The filtering companies will suggest that the ability
to override the filter provides the necessary local control.
“We can all agree that as a matter of educational If the companies were merely making a few mistakes in
policy students should have wide access to infor- their blocking, this might be a reasonable cure. But these
mation and ideas. But the people elect school companies are engaging in significant overblocking of
boards, who in turn select administrators, who potentially controversial information.
select teachers, and these are the individuals best When a site is blocked, the user has no insight as to
able to determine the substance of that policy. whether this is a good or bad site, so there is a reluctance
…. A school board is not a giant bureaucracy far to request for an override, especially if the subject matter
removed from accountability for its actions.” is controversial. The override process is generally untime-
ly and too burdensome. Students desiring access to
When school officials implement the use of filtering, potentially controversial information are reluctant to
they have abdicated control over what materials students request that the filter be overridden. Overriding is simply
may or may not access to private companies that are far not an adequate cure. Under these conditions, how can it
removed from accountability for their actions. The illuso- be considered constitutional for these products to be used
ry level of control that can be exercised at the local level in public institutions?
is the selection of categories—a selection based on a one
sentence description of what is blocked in that category, Comprehensive Education and Supervision Approach
with some examples but without an accurate description To truly protect young people on the Internet, we need to
of the criteria for blocking within the category. embrace a comprehensive approach that keeps younger
Beyond the one sentence description, the filtering children in very safe places, and that provides older chil-
companies protect all further information about how and dren with education and continued adult involvement to
what they are blocking as confidential trade secret infor- impart the knowledge, skills, motivation, and values to
mation. This includes all blocking criteria, key words that use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner.
are used to identify the sites, information about the deci- In schools, this can be done within the context of
the Children’s Internet Protection Act, by using alterna- About the Author: Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D. has testified
tive technologies, such as those described in the National before the Children’s Online Protection Act Commission
Research Council’s new study, Youth, Pornography and the National Research Council committee studying
and the Internet. Internet pornography on educational strategies to address
While there is a role for technologies to play in pro- the concerns of youth access to sexually explicit material.
tection and monitoring, we cannot continue to rely on She is the author of Computer Ethics, Etiquette, and
technological quick fixes as surrogates for the more Safety for the 21st Century Student, published by the
important responsibilities of education and continued International Society for Technology in Education, and
adult involvement. We simply must focus our efforts on Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet: A Guide
helping young people develop effective filtering and for Educators which is available through the
blocking systems that will reside in the hardware that sits Responsible Netizen Institute web site <responsible-
upon their shoulders. netizen.org/srui.html>.