Feds Want Google, Yahoo to Beef Up Filtering

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON — Search engines and peer-to-peer networks aren’t doing enough to prevent underage surfers from accessing adult content, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Claiming it wanted to gauge how easy it is for children to inadvertently access pornographic files online, the House Government Reform Committee asked the GAO to test some of the most popular file-sharing sources on the Internet, including P2P programs such as Warez, Kazaa and Morpheus and search engines such as Yahoo, Google and MSN.

While GAO investigators said the P2P programs and search engines varied in effectiveness at filtering out adult files, the report concluded that, in general, “pornographic images are easily shared and accessed” and “juveniles continue to be at risk of inadvertent exposure to pornographic images.”

Such findings could provide ammunition for legislators who have been calling for tighter controls on Internet content, including Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the man who heads the committee that ordered the report.

“Pornography presents a clear and present danger to children who use file-sharing programs to find images of their favorite athletes or copies of favorite songs,” Pitts said. “Unfortunately, innocuous searching quickly leads to dangerous places. These kids are exposed to untold numbers of pornographic files. This is a threat that Congress must address.”

Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., spoke in even more ominous tones, warning that, "The private sector must provide a means for parents to guard their children from the proliferation of online smut. If Congress doesn't see a positive good-faith movement, we will consider regulatory solutions."

According to the GAO report, Warez does not provide any filtering options. It found that Kazaa’s filter blocked certain words found in the titles or metadata of files shared with the software, making it effective in blocking images and files that had been accurately labeled, but the Morpheus filter was “largely ineffective in blocking pornographic content associated with words entered into the filter.”

Additionally, the programs “did not display any warning indicating that pornography, including child pornography, was accessible through these programs.”

The search engines tested didn’t fare any better. In particular, Google and Yahoo were found to be “largely ineffective”; MSN, on the other hand, was deemed to be more effective.

Google has come under fire in the past from both family advocates and adult companies for not doing enough to block access to copyrighted adult material.

Perfect 10 founder Norman Zada is suing Google for millions in lost revenue for Google’s failure to exclude his company’s content in its search results. Zada told XBiz the search engine is aware of the problem but unwilling to do anything about it because it makes too much money from adult content.

He is not alone in his accusations.

"If Google put some of its smart people on this task, they could do a much better job than they have so far," said Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School researcher who specializes in Internet issues. "They've got a lot of smart people. It would be shocking if their great engineers couldn't do better. The question is whether that's a priority for Google."