America Online has begun using new filtering technology to power its "parental control" options for kids, young teens and older teens. The automated technology -- provided by filtering company RuleSpace -- recognizes eight languages and can analyze the content of 47 million webpages per day. RuleSpace began running AOL's filters on April 9, but the two companies did not announce their relationship until last week. AOL's parental control options are not new, and the company said users probably wouldn't even notice the back-end changes. But analysts say AOL's partnership with RuleSpace could have a significant impact on the future of filtering the Net, moving the market toward one massive, automatically maintained database of blacklisted sites that becomes a standard.
"The RuleSpace knowledge base is going to be very attractive to a lot of corporate users," said Bill Gassman, an analyst at the Gartner Group. "Their list will find its way into corporate America. They'll figure: 'If AOL is using it for their members, it's got to be reasonably good.' AOL had previously contracted with SurfControl to operate its parental controls. While RuleSpace's system will be mostly automated, SurfControl's SurfWatch -- like many filtering products -- relied on human editors to make the final call on which sites should get blocked. Automated and manual types of analysis both have drawbacks. A team of editors can only review a tiny fraction of the seven million new websites added to the Web every day. But automated filters have become notorious among civil libertarians for "over-blocking" sites based on just one blacklisted keyword. For example, the ACLU likes to point out that conservative Congressman Dick Armey's website is blocked by a popular filter.
RuleSpace says the "contexion services" software it licenses to AOL relies on "next generation" technology to police the Web accurately and efficiently. Contexion doesn't just search keywords but can understand their context, and does so fast enough to keep up with millions of webpages. Because patents are pending on the context recognition technology, details are fuzzy. But the basic idea is that rather than searching for objectionable keywords, it analyzes text and assigns it to a category of similar kinds of text. In this way, the program can supposedly distinguish between a lurid tale and a clinical discussion of STD's.A demonstration of the product yielded some impressive results. RuleSpace Marketing VP Rob Warmack searched the Web on AOL with the "mature teens" filter activated. Contexion blocked a site called "The Art of Oral Sex" but it allowed a page titled "Is Oral Sex Safe?".
The software seems to have progressed from earlier programs that treated all instances of the word "dick" equally. Geoffrey Nunberg, an expert on digital language recognition at Xerox PARC, concedes that new "neural net" software such as the one RuleSpace uses is an improvement over first generation automated Web filters. "This will certainly be an improvement over what some of the other filters seem to be doing." But civil liberties advocates, who have fought the trend toward mandatory filtering in schools and libraries, are still skeptical that any kind of artificial intelligence can effectively replace human discrimination about what is objectionable material and what is valuable.
On another note, a good backup for filtering programs is a computer cleaner software package, such as this example.