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updated 6/29/2004 9:19:33 PM ET 2004-06-30T01:19:33

The Supreme Court is embracing Internet filtering software -- already popular in schools and libraries -- as an effective alternative to a U.S. law to ban online material that might be harmful to children.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote Tuesday in the court's majority opinion on online pornography that filtering software may be preferable to such laws because it is less restrictive and probably more effective at keeping kids from viewing Internet smut.

"Above all, promoting the use of filters does not condemn as criminal any category of speech," Kennedy wrote.

Just a few years ago, Internet filtering software was among the most-maligned category of technology because it sometimes mistakenly blocked even innocuous material.

Industry experts say the software has improved dramatically and now offers principals, librarians and corporate managers precise controls over which types of Internet sites or e-mails can be accessed.

"Filters have gotten more sophisticated," said Alan Davidson of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group that opposed the Child Online Protection Act. "They have better interfaces and are widely available."

Early versions of the technology offered an all-or-none choice whether to permit access to questionable Web sites or block it, said Kevin Blakeman, president of U.S. operations for Surf Control Inc., a leading filtering-software company.

Today's versions can tailor rules for viewing sites across age groups in a school or types of employees at a company.

"The hang-up of the moment seems to be pornography, but that's not the only material that might not be inappropriate; there are weapons, drugs, hate, violence," Blakeman said. "The filters go a long way toward providing that kind of protection."

Kennedy, in his ruling, noted that filters aren't perfect because they may block some Web sites that are not harmful to kids and fail to block others that are harmful. But he wrote that the government failed to show evidence that filters might be less restrictive than federal laws.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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