America Online has begun using new filtering technology to power its 'parental control' options for kids and teens of all ages. The automated technology - provided by filtering company RuleSpace - recognizes eight languages and is capable of analyzing the content of 47 million webpages per day. AOL's parental control options are not new, and the company said users will probably not notice the back-end changes. But analysts say AOL's partnership with RuleSpace could have a significant impact on the future of internet filtering, 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 at least 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 decision 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.
RuleSpace says the 'contexion services' software it licenses to AOL relies on 'next generation' technology to police the Web accurately and efficiently. Contexion does not just recognize 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 still fuzzy. But the basic idea is that rather than searching for objectionable keywords, it analyzes text and assigns it to a category of similar types of text. Tthis way, the program can apparently tell the difference 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 internet 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 modern-day software such as the one RuleSpace uses is an improvement over first generation internet 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 not.
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