Web Nanny for Disease Researchers

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

Government agencies are joining corporations in cracking down on so-called "cyberslackers" by installing software that limits employee access to the Internet--with annoying consequences for some researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

CDC installed filtering software in late March after monitoring revealed "inappropriate use," with peeks at pornography sites among "the more acute abuses," says spokesperson James Seligman. The filter, called Websense, bounces employees to an internal CDC page if they request a site included in a proprietary database of Web addresses that CDC says agency and federal policies place off limits. Sites featuring porn, weapons, racist rants, gambling, and militant screeds are among the 12 categories the agency has judged beyond the pale.

The new restrictions chagrined researchers studying topics that involve the Net's seamy side, such as AIDS. "When we saw [the e-mail memo], we kind of went: 'Arghh!' " says a researcher in a CDC division that studies whether the Internet encourages risky sexual behavior. Under a waiver policy, however, that group--along with another studying the use of explosives in mines--were granted access to forbidden territory.

CDC scientists told Science they can live with the filter. But at least one outside group is upset. "It raises very troubling [free speech] issues," fumes Chris Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed lawsuits against Web filters in libraries. "If this becomes a widespread practice in government, there's a fair chance we would challenge it."

Posted in Scientific Community