1. McCartney, Patricia R. PhD, RNC, FAAN

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Lively debate about tools to filter online spam and obscenities dominated technology discussions on the perinatal nursing listserv in June. Filters have advantages and disadvantages, so read on to avoid blocking desired e-mail and Web sites along with the undesired spam.


What Is Spam?

Spam is "e-mail junk mail," and is increasing in epidemic proportions. Spam is not just obscene messages, but any mass mailing of unsolicited advertising. How is spam generated? "Spambots" (i.e., cyberspace "robots") collect addresses from discussion lists, users who visit Web sites, or users who open a spam message. Spam is annoying to read and time consuming to sort and delete; it also drains Internet resources. News reports have recently described how major online providers are scrambling to develop tools to reduce spam and penalize offenders. The Internet is full of Web pages that promise to help you fight and report spam. However, computer experts fear that solutions hastily developed will result in ineffective products and approaches.


The main strategy used to deter spam is automatic filters. These are software programs that sort incoming e-mail according to predetermined rules. Some Internet providers do this filtering for their e-mail customers. Filter programs identify a key word in the header or text of the incoming e-mail and then either sort mail into folders, delete unwanted mail, or forward mail. Naturally, filters must be set and monitored carefully, for the more aggressive the filter rules, the greater the risk that e-mail you actually want will be misidentified as junk mail. Filter key words can be surprisingly common, such as "at home," "formula," "free," and "how to." A server can reject a message because just one sensitive word was detected. That's just one reason why using programs to filter spam can be fraught with difficulty.


Until a sophisticated program is available for the majority of us using the Internet, here's a list of ways you can personally combat spam:


* examine all your new in-box mail before opening it;


* delete all mail from senders with suspicious or unrecognized names;


* delete all mail with suspicious subject lines;


* delete all mail with blank sender or subject lines;


* do not open spam (the spammer collects addresses from every message that is opened);


* do not reply to spam mail (the spammer collects addresses from every reply);


* do not purchase merchandise from vendors who spam;


* avoid sending messages with headers similar to those found in spam (i.e., avoid using some of the words mentioned above when composing an e-mail message).



Protecting Children Who Use the Internet

Filters can also be used to block access to Web sites, as in the case of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000. This legislation requires all U.S. public schools and libraries that receive federal funding for technology purchases to "use technology protection measures" (filters) on all computers with Internet access to block materials deemed harmful to minors. The Supreme Court upheld this law in a challenge by the American Library Association (ALA) in United States v. American Library Association, No. 02-361, June 23, 2003 (ALA, 2003). Libraries must purchase filtering software that identifies key words (e.g., "breast") or graphics, and then blocks access to the site. These filters may be disabled for adult patrons. Again, filters may block legitimate sites (think of a school child doing research on "breast cancer"). Libraries oppose Internet filtering because of concerns about filtering free speech and filtering software biases (ALA, 2003).


The ALA supports GetNetWise, a nonprofit public service collaboration of online corporations and public interest organizations (GetNetWise, 2003). This widely recommended site contains safety tips and details on dozens of filtering software products parents can use not only to block sites, but to limit time and monitor Internet usage.


Use caution when enabling filters, and use these resources to learn more about online safety for children.


Do not open or reply to spam. The spammer collects addresses from every opended message.




1. American Library Association (ALA). (2003). American Library Association home page. Retrieved July 3, 2003, from [Context Link]


2. GetNetWise. (2003). GetNetWise. Retrieved July 3, 2003, from [Context Link]