Stemming the Tide of Porn

Experts say no high-speed screening software is foolproof.
by Wayne Laugesen | Source: Catholic.net
NEW YORK — The name “Rutler” rings a bell to many active Catholics. Father George Rutler is a New York pastor who is well known to readers of Crisis magazine and viewers of EWTN.

So when a website that promises filtered Internet access posts an endorsement from a name very close to his, along with testimonials from a reputable canon lawyer from the Vatican and ordinary Catholic mothers, the product looks like a safe bet.

“The Web enables me to preach to thousands,” says part of a quote on the site that seems to be attributed to Father Rutler. The service “enables you to be in a safe environment online.”

The site promises an Internet filter that “protects your kids” from pornography. But the site, which was once legitimately intended to help Catholics avoid porn, has become a trap to lure Catholics — particularly those seeking to filter porn — straight to a sex-talk phone service.

A toll-free number to sign up is posted prominently on the front page of the site, but the number rings to a pornographic chat service.

Dial-up services like Familink work with proxy servers to make only clean sites available to customers.

But for those using high-speed access, stumbling upon porn can be unavoidable, no matter how devoted one is to avoiding smut. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire reported Feb. 13 that 42% of children surveyed admit to encountering online pornography, defined by the researchers as pictures of naked people or sexual activity, in just the past year. Though alarming to most parents, at least one researcher says the study hasn’t alarmed them enough.

“I’m certain that their figure is low,” said Steve Ensley, CEO of American Family Online, a Christian Internet filtering service. “I’ve been researching this for the past two years, using an amalgamation of input, including user surveys and church surveys, and I’m finding that up to 85% of 15-to 21-year-olds have viewed Internet porn and 60% to 65% of 12-to-15-year-olds have seen it.”

The New Hampshire researchers surveyed 1,422 kids ages 10 to 17 in March 2005. The findings were published in the February issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

Catholics are routinely conned into viewing porn, as Catholic speaker Mary Beth Bonacci discovered years ago when pornographers used a domain name nearly identical to one she used for a website that taught teenagers the difference between true God-based love and “pizza love.” Users who attempted the “.com” version of the domain, rather than the “.net” version — a common mistake on the Internet — were taken to lewd photos.

Out of Business


Porn filters are numerous, affordable and easy to acquire. Internet Service Providers can filter porn at the server before it reaches a personal computer, and personal software can screen some of it at the user end. Some software is so sophisticated it can be programmed to page a parent, or call an adult’s cell phone, if it detects the viewing of porn. As new porn sites emerge by the minute, however, the screening mechanisms become less effective.

“There is a constant battle between those who wish to filter porn and those who have a profit motive to defeat filters,” said James Mackin, a Denver-area electrical engineer and Internet consultant. “Purveyors of porn will always try to stay one step ahead of the filters, and to a large extent they will succeed.”

Mackin, a Catholic father of six who all use the Internet, said computers used by children should always be kept in high-traffic, common areas. No child should have private time with a computer. Furthermore, Mackin said parents should be wary of the possibility that children will use computers at night, while others are asleep, in order to view inappropriate material.

Ensley, a Catholic who calls American Family Online a “filtering ministry,” agrees.

He said the porn chat line presented by CatholicFamilies.net is one of millions of efforts by pornographers to fool filters and Internet users alike. Ensley said filters are excellent tools for those who are actively trying to avoid porn, but they’re far from foolproof.

“Our service can filter 99.3% of the porn that’s out there, but that .7% of 89 million porn sites is substantial,” Ensley said. “Parents will never be able to simply apply a filter and forget about it. If you want to protect your children from pornography, you have to be a vigilant parent and you have to know what your children are doing.”

Iconnect.com, a once-giant Internet service provider that went out of business five years ago, launched CatholicFamilies.net with great fanfare in 2000. Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration and author of the book Catholics on the Internet, described CatholicFamilies.net as “the first Catholic Internet access provider,” and told readers part of the company’s proceeds would go to support the Vatican Treasury Museum.

Said Ensley, “What happened to” the site cited at the beginning of this article “is a classic example of how the deceiver can hijack something good and turn it into something evil.” The site “was a legitimate attempt to help Catholics avoid pornography, and now it’s a deliberate attempt to lead Catholics straight to it.”

Father Rutler told the Register the quotation is a fraud. “I never gave that endorsement,” he said in an e-mail. “Those are not my words and I am distressed that this company is using my name without permission.”

Hoyt Webb, who served as general counsel for Iconnect.com, declined to speak with the Register, saying through a secretary that Iconnect is long out of business and no longer responsible for the site in question.

At the Register’s request, Ensley attempted to find out who converted the defunct site into a porn trap. His investigation found that an “anonymizer” and multiple other technological concealment maneuvers have been used to protect the location of the site and the parties responsible for it. He said nothing short of a court-sanctioned FBI investigation would find those responsible for the ruse.

MySpace?


Mackin said no matter what happens with Internet filtering technology, it will always be essential to tell children to look away. He said any child will quickly find a way around filters, even if he isn’t trying to. Mackin explained that in most urban neighborhoods, a personal computer will detect the wireless Internet access networks of nearby neighbors. Most people, he said, leave their home wireless networks open for anyone to use without a password.

“So, you can set up a filtering system with your ISP, and if your child logs onto the neighbor’s wireless network he has just circumvented your entire filtering mechanism,” Mackin said. “If your child goes to school, he’ll eventually come across a kid with a mobile device — such as a cell phone — that browses the Web. Some kids print this stuff out at home and bring it to school. You absolutely must instill in your children the discipline to look away.”

Ensley said American Family Online’s filtering completely eliminates access to the popular MySpace.com, which he describes as an open sewer, and similar “social hookup sites.”

“There is no way to use MySpace.com safely,” Ensley said. “It’s absolutely impossible to get the good without going through the bad. To do so would be like walking around a sewer with the expectation that you won’t encounter a smell.”

Ensley said his company’s extensive research proves that nobody can use MySpace.com without encountering smut, and he has written an eight-page report to defend his position.

“I know a young deacon who’s the youth minister at his church,” Ensley said. “He has a website on MySpace.com and he directs the kids there. His says ‘It’s where the kids are these days,’ so we have to meet them where they’re at. My stand is: You can’t safely direct kids there. Jesus went into the sinner’s homes, but he did so to draw them out of sin. He drew Mary Magdalene out of prostitution. Likewise, we must draw our kids out of MySpace, and never send them in there.”



Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.



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