If you’re concerned about the volume of web-based advertising aimed at children, Siemens AG, a giant technology firm based in Germany, has a product for you. The company has released a web-site advertising filter that is free to schools. Siemens claims its software can eliminate up to 90 percent of ads from web sites and greatly speed up download times in the process.

Programs that can block ads from web sites aren’t new. New Jersey-based Junkbusters Corp., for example, offers a free program called Internet Junkbuster that filters advertisements as well as cookie files and other “junk communications.” But Siemens is the first major company to offer its ad-filtering technology to schools.

WebWasher

Called WebWasher, the program works in conjunction with your browser–like a plug-in. It runs on PCs with Windows 95 or 98 and works with browsers from Netscape or Microsoft. You can also run WebWasher on a Windows NT server as a proxy for your local area network, so you don’t have to install it on every computer.

WebWasher detects banner ads on web sites by their characteristic dimensions as set by the Internet Advertising Bureau. It also looks for text patterns that are representative of web advertising, such as domain names of ad servers and typical patterns of banner links.

Because the ads aren’t downloaded at all from web sites, Siemens claims WebWasher can load pages faster and save up to 45 percent of your network’s bandwidth. That figure is based on the percentage of a web site’s content that might be advertising-related, according to WebWasher creator Roland Cuny.

Web pages downloaded with WebWasher contain blank spaces where the banner ads were located. The software also filters pop-up screens and other HTML elements that contain advertising, such as frames, layers, styles, Javascripts, and Java applets, and Cuny claims it can detect and disable stealth methods that programmers use to keep ads from being filtered as well.

Preserving the ‘eye candy’

Cuny originally developed the software for Siemens as a productivity tool for company employees. “Our employees complained that they had difficulties reading web pages,” he said. “They needed too much time to find information on the web–the advertising distracted them too much.”

With the free release of WebWasher, schools now can enjoy the same benefits, Cuny said: Reduced network load and costs, a faster and more comfortable surfing experience, and web pages that are easier to read.

Advocates of commercial-free environments for schools think the software could have other, larger benefits to education as well.

“The fewer commercial images that kids are subjected to in school, the better,” said Andy Hagelshaw, senior program director for the Center for Commercial Free Public Education. “Kids are a captive audience when they’re using the internet in school, and banner ads are a distraction from the learning process.”

But skeptics wondered if the software would block more than just advertisements from web sites. They pointed to versions of ad-filtering software from other companies, which they said can filter out other graphic elements as well.

“One of the things we’ve been continually amazed about is how graphically-oriented kids are–they love the eye candy that’s on the web,” said the operator of a highly successful, student-oriented site that relies on banner ads for its revenue. “If the companies that develop these ad-filtering programs think that all students want is the meat, the text, they’re wrong.”

Cuny said the technology behind WebWasher allows it to distinguish between advertising and other graphics quite effectively. But the software isn’t perfect, he acknowledged.

“In very [rare] cases, WebWasher filters some useful data,” Cuny said. “It is up to the user to decide if the benefit of filtering a huge amount of unwanted data is more beneficial compared to the very low risk of loosing good data.”

The software can be customized by the user to reduce the chance of inadvertent filtering, he added, and it can be turned on and off with the click of a mouse.

“We found out that the detection of advertising is the least difficult thing,” Cuny said. “It is much more difficult to program algorithms that successfully remove the advertising without destroying the layout or generating Javascript errors. We also had to struggle with browser incompatibilities and bugs in proxy servers.”

You can decide for yourself whether WebWasher is worth using. The software is available as a free download from Siemens’ site in Germany.

Siemens’ WebWasher

http://www.siemens.de/servers/wwash

Junkbusters Corp.

http://www.junkbusters.com

Internet Advertising Bureau

http://www.iab.net

Center for Commercial Free Public Education

http://www.commercialfree.org