SurfWatch Strikes Gold as Internet Guardian

Chronicle Front Page
The Gate

Thursday, March 7, 1996 · Page D1
© 1996 San Francisco Chronicle

SurfWatch Strikes Gold as Internet Guardian

David Einstein, Chronicle Staff Writer

The prospect of censorship in cyberspace has raised fears and sparked debates over decency and privacy. It's also created a golden opportunity for companies that make software to control access to the Internet.

SurfWatch Software is a perfect example. Barely a year old and boasting just 15 employees and no venture capital backing, the little Los Altos company suddenly has one of the hottest products on the market.

Its SurfWatch software lets parents prevent children from viewing sexually explicit sites on the World Wide Web and other parts of the Internet, including newsgroups. Some newsgroups proffer photographs of child pornography, bestiality and other topics best kept from the younger set.

Once installed on a personal computer, SurfWatch maintains a constant vigil, using keywords and other filters to block more than 2,000 Internet locations. Try to access a dirty destination, and the program throws up a message saying ``Blocked by SurfWatch.''

A parent can turn off the program using a password. Without it, even an above-average teenage hacker would have trouble disabling the software sentry. Ironically, SurfWatch has become something of a censor itself, since the company decides which sites to block. That caused a major embarrassment last month, when the software put the White House Web site off-limits because it used the allegedly indecent term ``couple'' in connection with Al and Tipper Gore. SurfWatch officials say they plan to offer an optional add-on called SurfWatch Manager that will let people add or delete blocked sites from the blacklist that the company continually updates. It should be available within two months.

``We don't want to be censors,'' says Ann Duvall, president of SurfWatch. ``We want to provide tools so people can make their own choices.''

SurfWatch, which was the first company to offer an Internet access blocker, has since been joined by a handful of competitors. Its chief rival at this point is Cyber Patrol from Microsystems Software of Framingham, Mass.

Cyber Patrol (sold under that name online, and as Net Blocker Plus in retail stores) is more flexible than SurfWatch, letting parents block sites of their choice in addition to those the company has deemed offensive. It also covers more ground, going beyond sex to include violence, profanity and other categories.

SurfWatch's forte is the ease with which it can be installed and used. Ease-of-use, coupled with an aggressive marketing program, have helped establish SurfWatch as a leader in what promises to be a big market -- education. As schools get Internet access, they become responsible, like it or not, for keeping students off raunchy Web sites.

SurfWatch offers deep discounts to schools, and it's paying off. Between 30 percent and 50 percent of the company's business is now in the education market, says Jay Friedland, vice president of marketing and sales.

Both SurfWatch and Microsystems are lining up deals as fast as they can to take advantage of a market that has been fueled by debate over whether the government should get into the Internet censorship business.

AT&T plans to offer both SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol as options in its new WorldNet Internet service. SurfWatch also has a deal pending with Pacific Bell and is talking with other regional Bell operating companies. Microsoft says that a parental control system it plans to integrate with its Web browser will be compatible with either SurfWatch or Cyber Patrol. Both SurfWatch and Microsystems say their products will be compatible with technology being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium to control Internet access. They also plan to embrace a voluntary ratings system aimed at heading off any attempts by Congress or the courts to control the Net.

Products like SurfWatch are getting enthusiastic endorsements from free-speech groups and others that don't like the idea of the government turning into Big Brother.

``The most important thing about these products is they allow individual families to make choices about what they think is offensive and appropriate based on their own values,'' says Danny Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

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