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Put On The Virtual Armor

Server-Based Filtering Best Option For Protecting Internet Users From Harmful Sites

By Jason Collum
AFA Journal Staff Writer
AFA Journal, May 2001 Edition

If the presence of 25 million pornographic sites on the Internet isn't enough to make parents think twice about the need for protection for themselves and their children, maybe the millions of chat rooms, gambling sites and violent games are.

And, if concerns that past Internet filters weren't worth the cost because the ease with which they could be bypassed has led users to feel no filter provides near-foolproof protection, American Family Online hopes to erase those fears with its server-based filter.

AFA Filter works to protect adults and children from harmful sites on the Net, while allowing users to safely take advantage of the good sites and information.

"Although there's a tremendous amount of good material on the Internet, there's also a tremendous amount of destructive material, and that includes things like pornography, gambling, chat rooms, violent games, and illegal activities," AFO President Steve Ensley said.

The number of AFA Filter users has grown to more than 15,000 since the service was introduced in June 1998.

"Filtering was just beginning to come out in 1996," Ensley said, and the filtering division was started because "the Rev. [Don] Wildmon was getting calls saying, 'I need to get on the Internet, but I'm afraid for my family. Is there any software available?' About that time I was recommending we look at server-based filtering. But we couldn't find one we felt met the standards a pro-family organization needed to endorse it."

Wildmon, American Family Association president, said he felt it was time someone took the initiative to protect America's families. "We got in this to offer a filter. We knew we would do it from a conservative Christian perspective, and doubted anyone else would," he said.

Server-based filters provide protection at the Internet server level, whereas client-based filters are software installed on a personal computer's hard drive. The important difference between the two is that unlike client-based filters, server-based filters, especially AFA's filter, cannot be easily deactivated. This affords adults and children a greater amount of security in that the protection, though not 100%, is always on and is extremely difficult to override. Also, unlike client-based filters that need constant upgrading to keep up with the fast-changing environment of the Net, server-based filters are regularly upgraded without any work necessary by personal computer users.

Ensley said AFO established three criteria in developing its own filter after finding the options lackluster. AFA's filter had to be secure, accurate, and fast. Security and accuracy were top priorities.

"Filters at the time used a lot of keyword filtering," Ensley said. "Unfortunately with keywords, they work quite efficiently but it's easy to take a word out of context. You could have a word that has a legitimate medical meaning but also has a pornographic meaning and the filter would not know, so it would just block it. What that did was shut down a lot of the good sites. We felt accuracy had to be improved. We worked with other organizations to develop a process that uses a combination of a white (good) list, black (bad) list and a keyword."

How it works
The AFA Filter looks for keywords first. Keywords are words commonly associated with web sites, such as "car" for automobile sites. If it doesn't find a match, and keywords are limited, the filter will look for that site to be on the white list. If it's not on the white list, it will look for it on the black list. A site that might be on the white list, for example, would be a medical site that contained some nudity for a legitimate purpose, such as breast cancer. That will go on the white list as a legitimate site and will be available. The black list would catch sites which appear to have innocent names and content, but are the opposite.

"I was looking for solar panels one time," Ensley said, "and the filter kicked in. What happened was the fourth item on the list was actually a porn site, but what [porn site operators] had done was put the site under the description of solar panels so people looking for solar panels, usually men, would hit the porn site accidently.

"They do a lot of that--misdirect is very common in the industry," Ensley said. "You have to have the black list, which is a list of a site or an address that has bad material even though the context doesn't indicate it. A lot of sites are just images with no text that would incriminate them."

How effective is the AFA Filter? Ensley daily receives E-mail from users thanking AFO for the service and sharing their personal stories as to why they need protection. One such user, Tammy Stephens, hopes others don't have to relive her family's experience.

"I tell everyone I know that they need a filter," Stephens said. "I tell them to not just assume that their child will never happen across these things. Our computer is set up in the kitchen where we thought we could keep an eye on what they were viewing, but it didn't work out that way. You can have the best behaved children in the world, and that is not going to protect them from what we saw on our computer. My niece says her son is not on the computer that much. It doesn't matter; it only takes one time."

"This is a prime example of why families need Internet filtering," Wildmon said. "Internet filtering is important for all ages. That's why we block chat rooms. You see in the papers all the time where someone has run off with someone they met online, or where a pedophile has lured a child through a chat room. It's just as damaging for parents as it is for kids. It can harm parents, and it can warp a kid for life."

Sites blocked by AFA Filter include pornographic sites, gambling sites, chat rooms and various other sites. AFA Filter does not block sites "based on philosphy or belief," Ensley said, "but whether that material is destructive to people and their families; [if it will] separate a person from God."

The next update of AFA Filter, Version 4, is set to arrive in late spring or early summer, and supports Windows-based computers. While Apple Macintosh and Linux computer users can't use the AFA filter yet, they should be able to have access by the end of the year.

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