Why I don’t think internet filters should be mandatory at schools and libraries


kid-computer-libraryYou can view the bill here.

Alright, before you hit the comment link and start saying that I want kids exposed to porn, let me state for the record: If there was a fool-proof and cost-effective way to keep kids from viewing explicit adult material, without blocking any non-adult material, I would be supportive of it; I would prefer that my kids not look at porn.

But that’s the problem with filtering mechanisms: They aren’t perfect. Some would argue that they are in fact deeply flawed.

The reason they don’t work is because of the incredibly difficult task of determining what should and should not be filtered. Let’s take a look at the wording of Bill 128 202 which is calling for the filtering. Section 321 states:

“sexually explicit material” means material of which a principal feature or characteristic is the nudity or partial nudity of any person and that is designed to appeal to erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations.

Interpreting this definition accurately means not only looking at how much, or what kind of nudity appears, but also its context. A woman wearing a bikini could merely be an online catalogue showing a bikini for sale, or, if the woman is posed in a very suggestive manner it could be part of an ad for porn site. Being able to understand the context of an image is critical.

Even if you believe that a person or group of people could make this judgement call for the entire multitude of images that are available online, filters don’t work that way. They rely on programming. Sometimes the programming blocks a whole site, say http://www.playboy.com. That’s an easy one. But they often use algorithms or other means to block the offensive content.

Even Google, the company with arguably the most depth of experience when it comes to understanding the content of the web and how to organize it, can’t block all explicit material. When I turned their SafeSearch option on and set it to “Use strict filtering (Filter both explicit text and explicit images) ”, and then did a search for “breasts”, the second result was:

Breasts Video – Metacafe
She gets naked in this movie and shows her pretty breasts and body

Why do I get the feeling I’m about to see nudity or partial nudity of a person that is designed to appeal to my erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations?

So it’s pretty clear that these filters can’t block all of the material that they are designed to block. Some might say that at least something is better than nothing. And in general I would agree.  However it brings me to the other big problem with filters: what they block that isn’t sexually explicit.

Not long ago, the Australian government promised to implement a policy requiring all ISPs to install filters that would prevent anyone from accessing adult material, based on a blacklist of sites. Almost as soon as the system was conceived, problems arose as their “[restricted] category includes not just child pornography but anti-abortion sites, fetish sites and sites containing pro-euthanasia material such as The Peaceful Pill Handbook by Dr Philip Nitschke.”

And that’s happening with the most basic of filtering systems – the blacklist scheme. Imagine the difficulties with other mechanisms.

I’m somewhat concerned with the costs that a mandatory filtering system would impose upon the already cash-strapped budgets of both the public school system and the public library system. In Windsor, the public library is struggling to find enough money to keep all 10 of their libraries open and have enough copies of books to meet demand. I doubt that paying for internet filtering is something they want to squeeze into their budget.

In public libraries, the fear is that kids will be exposed to this material if an adult is looking at it on a computer and the kids happen to walk by. I have a solution: Why not relocate the library computers to a more private area where only the person using the PC can see the contents of the screen. This would be a good idea regardless of the content. I’m sure that a teen looking up information on birth control or perhaps STI’s would want a little privacy. This has to be less expensive than buying filtering software and installing it on all the PCs, and then keeping that software up to date.

I’m also not convinced that there is enough evidence to suggest that my kids are going to be exposed to questionable material – unless they go looking for it – at either their school or their local library.

This brings us to Premier McGuinty’s thoughts on the subject. He’s not ready to back the proposed bill. He suggests that responsibility for a child’s online activities rests primarily with the parents.  I tend to agree. The best way to prevent your kids from viewing illicit material is to talk to them about what is and is not appropriate, much like you would for any other behaviour. If the message sticks, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether your school’s filters are adequately protecting your kids – your kids will avoid the material altogether.

If the message doesn’t resonate with them, then I have some bad news: even the filters can’t stop a determined youngster from finding what they’re looking for and then sharing it with their chums. 

 For a different take on this issue, check out Rhonda’s pro-filtering post.

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27 comments

  1. Pingback: Internet Pornography Filters in Our Schools & Libraries | Sync Blog
  2. Brett

    Web filtering in school environments is simply commonsense. Some points to consider:

    1. The majority of schools – and, for that matter, numerous businesses – have already voluntarily implemented a web filter. Why? Because there’s a clear set of benefits to doing so, that’s why!

    2. Web filtering does more than simply block porn; a web filter can also be used to block access to Facebook, online gaming and other time wasting websites.

    3. Web filters certainly are not perfect, but they are good enough to stop most kids accessing what they shouldn’t (99.999% of kids would not be able to crack a web filter in a year, let alone in less than 30 minutes).

    4. No-cost solutions such as OpenDNS enable schools and libraries to implement filters without the need to dip into their “already cash-strapped budgets”.

    5. Web filtering can help organizations avoid legal liability problems (while there hasn’t too my knowledge yet been such a case in Canada, it may well be only a matter of time!).

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    • Simon Cohen

      Good points Brett.
      I’m not actually against the idea of schools or libraries using filters if they choose, on their own, to do so. I do see some of the merits (some of which you point out), and it’s hardly a black & white issue despite how some people see it.
      I’m against the idea that these institutions should be forced by law to implement such filters and I listed some of the reasons why I feel that way.
      It’s worth noting that while your suggestion of OpenDNS would certainly be a viable form of content-filtering, it would not be enough to for a school or library to be compliant with the proposed law. I encourage you to read the bill fully. It contains a very onerous list of requirements that goes far beyond blocking access to specific sites.
      If passed, this law is going to cost a lot of money to solve a problem that may not even exist (how many documented instances are there of children being exposed to harmful material?) Again, if it turns out that this is crisis that I was unaware of, then by all means, let’s fix it. But I have a feeling this is motivated by fear (and politics??) rather than hard evidence.

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      • Maggie

        I had first hand experience with this type of thing when I was the Coordinator of the Community Access Program (Industry Canada) in our town. We had 5 computer acess sites with approx. 20 computers. We had Net Nanny filters and posted warnings and it still happened.
        This onerous Bill is useless and a waste of time. Does Mr. Martiniuk really believe that our schools & libraries are not already doing everything they can to prevent these kinds of incidents?
        And what are the penalities if “little Billy” sees something that one person views as porn and another views as art??
        The best and most effective “filter” is supervision by staff.

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      • Advocate

        Haven’t checked in for a while, a concerned parent that is too busy fighting to get rid of YouTube at school and getting the filters we already have to actually be applied to harmful Internet content.

        How many documented cases? Several in one little school of about 400 elementary kids. This IS a crisis that you and most others are simply not aware of. Little kids have inadvertently (some intentionally) watched animated explicit sexual acts between people and people and animals in the school library. These are only the cases where the kids have actually told their parents what they have seen. Who knows what else has been viewed? There is a plethora of extremely disturbing non-pornographic content available to innocent, impressionable kids.

        This is absolutely motivated by fear – well justified fear. Politicians are only involved because the educators are not acting. Do you have kids? Ask a few pointed questions and you may be amazed at what you’ll learn.

        Bill 128 may be flawed, filters may be flawed, but parents and educators must do the best job they possibly can to protect children online. I thank Gerry for planting the seed but I could kiss Dalton for his position that parents are responsible for keeping their kids away from pornography. Give us that right. Let us have our say in what schools are exposing our children to on a daily basis. Yes, by all means, let’s fix it.

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  3. Ann

    I am a mother of a pre-teen girl and I can’t agree that if you tell kids not to do something (like look at inappropriate sites) that they’ll do it. Kids, especially young teens (and older for that matter) will look at it because they’re curious about the changes they’re experiencing themselves. It is best to leave the ‘parental supervision’ aspect to the home and have the schools’ computers filtered so that kids are less likely to be accidentally exposed to inappropriate (sexual or violent) content.

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    • Maureen

      I agree. Parental supervision is vital, but it is irrational to expect a parent to walk around the library with our hand over our child’s eyes. As for the school library, caution should be the norm, especially given the addictive and often life-damaging nature of pornography.

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      • User

        That is quite huge a claim, that pornography is “life-damaging”. You should explain that claim further considering the huge number of normal adults that view adult material, whose lives remain un-damaged. Do you mean it is damaging to young children who view it? Or to a small percentage of people that have some underlying mental condition?

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  4. Rylee

    well, i am 11. so what? my school has already installed barracuda spam filter. (found out when i checked my school inbox not too long ago) well, it is implemented to reduce spam, but it does NOT GET IT ALL. to add to that, i can bypass its web filtering, by using any web proxy. whatevs. i agree with ann. u tell me, no! don’t go there, i do it. if i find a site that is blocked (ex. metacafe) i will easily spend the whole class trying to bypass the filtering. but, NOOOOO FILTERING!

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  5. TSD

    I’m not concerned about my child accessing pornography himself at the library, I agree with others who have stated emphatically that parents need to be aware of what their kids are viewing. HOWEVER, AND IT’S A BIG HOWEVER, I AM CONCERNED ABOUT WHAT OTHER ADULTS MIGHT BE INAPPOPRIATELY ACCESSING IN A PUBLIC PLACE, OPEN FOR YOUNG CHILDREN TO VIEW! It has happened to me personally with my own young child – not pornography, and not at a library, but a similar situation – the airline that I was travelling with was screening the uncut version of “Gangs of New York” (which if you haven’t seen it is GRAPHICALLY VIOLENT beyond anything which should EVER be shown in public, and was most certainly rated “R”) as an “option” on the inflight entertainment. The man in the seat next to my 4 year old son was happily watching it on his screen… and so was my 4 year old!!!!! I was powerless to keep him from seeing, and the man’s opinion was that it was his “freedom of choice” to watch that particular movie. I agree that he had the right to watch it, but not in the presence of my young child. The airline were wrong to have provided it to be viewed in such a public forum in the first place! The same applies to pornography in public places. What an adult accesses in private (provided the material is not illegal) is their own business. What, however, they choose to view in public, is EVERYONE’S BUSINESS. The government needs to find a solution, to keep our PUBLIC spaces rated “G”,fit for the eyes of us all.

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  6. Malcolm Boura

    This scheme suffers from a major and overriding flaw. It assumes that nudity is somehow harmful and that nudity is much the same thing as pornography. Confusing the two results in serious harm. The people most harmed are those same young people that the filtering is supposed to protect.

    Attitudes have consequences and the consequences of body-shame are widespread and often devastating. Try comparing the outcomes for the most prudish western countries, for example the USA, with those for the most enlightened. Teenagers in the USA become sexually active nearly a year younger, they are less likely to use contraception or condom and more likely to be promiscuous. The results are predictable. Several times more likely to have an abortion, about ten times more likely to become pregnant and about seventy times more likely to catch gonorrhoea.

    Most of the demand for body censorship is to save some adults from embarrassment. Is that really worth the life of even one child or young person? That is just a simple statement of fact, not an exaggeration.

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    • Simon

      No, the definition of porn used in the bill was accurate:

      “material of which a principal feature or characteristic is the nudity or partial nudity of any person and that is designed to appeal to erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations.”

      Not banning all nudity. Just pornography.

      (I still disagree with the bill though)

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  7. bluebloodtea

    I have to say I agree with Malcolm, and I have some thoughts to add.

    Things such as hardcore pornography, extreme graphical violence, smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol and using illicit drugs, etc. are products of our society. It is because a majority of people don’t want them to exist that they do. The pressure to be a perfectly ‘moral’ and ‘upstanding’ person in the eye of our populace is exactly what creates these darker aspects of our society. We try to tell people that it’s wrong to be human, when we are all clearly human. Humans are curious beings, and for the most part we don’t enjoy being told what to do. There’s a big difference between educating a person and telling a person what to do. Trying to force a particular set of views or beliefs on a person does not educate, but often brings about an adverse reaction. The phrase “rules are made to be broken” is one of the truest statements regarding human intelligence to ever be uttered.

    I honestly believe that how a child acts and what a child believes should be mostly impacted by a parent, rather than TV, internet, friends, neighbors or any media outlet. Parents, I understand you’re busy, and sometimes may be too busy to personally look after your own child, but that is the problem right there. If you can’t dedicate ten years of your life to look after and educate and raise your own child, you should not have a child. Children should not be raised by strangers, or media. I really believe that if you raise your child with your personal set of beliefs and limit their exposure to media as a whole, you probably don’t need to worry whether they are looking at porn or not. They either won’t look at it, or they’ll satisfy their curiosity and then move on to something more mentally nourishing.

    I know that life happens, and the best laid plans go to crap with the next storm, and whatever other allegorical iterations you want to throw in there. That is fact. But I do believe there are many parents these days that do not try hard enough to be the major part of their children’s lives. This is wrong. Leaving your child to be raised by TV and media in general is hurtful for children. We now have had a couple of generations with individuals that have been raised by television, and we should be able to learn from this recent history.

    The bigger problem is that our society largely doesn’t see a problem with our society as a whole.

    Either way, Malcolm made some good points. And I believe the less censoring the better. At one time, people were able to believe we live in a free society. Now everyone wants their hands held through life by our wonderful government, and are willing to give up any freedoms they have for this ‘privilege’. This makes me sad.

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    • Wolf

      Bravo, I could not say it better!

      I have 3 children(now adults) that had unrestricted use of computers, internet, theaters, magazines, tv etc.
      As I started out with computers many of my peers restricted access to these things to their kids. One thing that I always believe in is that wether or not you put restrictions and or filters on they can and will be comromised. Remember that a lot of virus creators are actually teenagers….
      As for what to do to have our kids turn out “NORMAL”? Well I would say the most important factor is that you keep lines of communication open. Talk with them, make them part of what you believe in, treat them as responsible equals. Restrictions will only make them feel like kids and they will rebell. Violence, drugs, alcohol, porn…..
      The list goes on and on. I will admit that my kids were not free from all of that, but we discussed these things as they were popping up. There were no long lasting damages to this either. All of them are outstanding members of the community.
      To conclude this I also want to say one thing: The human body is a wonderful thing to see, and so is the mind….

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  8. Alexei

    I am 21 and personally I believe that the government should not mandate filters in Libraries. If school boards wish to put filters in place to protect kids that is their decision. The problem with putting filters in place in Libraries is that a filter just does a broad block of words, this will block people from searching things like Breast Cancer or other medical sites. It is up to parent’s to control their children. Just because your child is not right in front of you does not mean you are free of responsibility. If a library catches someone looking at pornography they will ban that person either from use of their computers or from the establishment all together. Libraries have a duty to provide information and once a filter is put in place we are severely restricting the amount of information available. Under the constitution we have a freedom to information and Public Libraries up hold this. Once a filter is put on the internet you may as well start taking books off the shelf that have words like Penis or that use curse words.

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  9. Gel

    I am of the opinion that in primary and middle school’s as much filtering as possible should take place, and also as much vigilance by teachers and support staff etc.
    there are also many built in options within the operating systems without need to purchase filtering software, whereby the I.T. professionals or administrators who manage the school networks can be givin a list of allowed educational sites ( Encyclopedia Brittanica, National Geographic, Nickelodion, library sites, educational institutes, Zoo’s, ETC ) and those can be the only sites visited. If a site is recommended or requested by a student and or the parents then it can be viewed by an admin and deemed as worthy of inclusion or not.
    there are also inexpensive monitoring programs that can log all the sites visited and then can be reviewed, any that are deemed inapropriate can be added to a blocked list within the operating software, that is password protected and acessable only by the network admins.
    If all the schools forwarded these two lists ” allowed / Blocked ” to their regional board a master list could be compiled and disseminated to all the schools. these yearly list’s would be continually added to and updated simply by sharing the information gleaned from the regional facilties.
    Public library networks would be more difficult to filter but it would be very easy to divide the computers between adult and childrens after a brief survey of usage, then the appropriate security settings can be applied to the computers designated as childrens.
    Of course parental supervision is always the best tool and would need to be in place at a library to make sure the child only uses the childrens computer.
    these actions would be both cost and usage effective… no one can offer a 100% solution but 98% is better than none!

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    • User

      Viewing sites “on request”? Wow, considering the huge number of sites out there on the internet, a whole world to see, that would greatly restrict what someone is able to view (only a handful of sites) and I can imagine how time-consuming that would be for the staff. Plus, how would someone find the new sites in the first place if they are not accessible? What a waste of the huge educational potential that is out there online.

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  10. bluebloodtea

    So true Gel! And we can add another point for fascist rule! If we can limit our children’s exposure to the outside world completely, we’ll be able to create the most self-absorbed and ignorant populace possible! This would be great, because with no options for independent learning, they will believe everything we say is right! It’s so simple, that’s what makes it such a great plan!

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  11. Umse Umnandze

    If web filtering is to be required, should we not also be filtering out religious web-sites? Religions have done far more harm to people than pornography ever has. Religions have been behind wars that have killed countless people, and religious repression has ruined many people’s lives. Still, filtering out religious web sites is not going to fly in our repressed society, nor do I believe we should be repressing that sort of harmful website any more than filtering so-called porn. Censorship just puts too much power over the individual into the hands of society, and the whims of society can be random and cruel.

    My parents’ hiding their stash of “adult mags” in their room did not keep me from seeing those any more than internet filters will keep kids from seeing porn. I doubt there are many adults reading this who did not have some exposure to “adult material” as kids … they always manage to find it, and I really don’t think any harm follows solely because of that. However, as has been often pointed out, internet filters are far from advanced tools, and they easily block out important information as well, like info on STD’s, contraception, medical information that by nature shows the human body, information on breastfeeding, life-drawing, and sites that promote a healthy acceptance of the human form.

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  12. Randy

    Any “adult” stupid or indifferent enough to view obscene material in a public library could probably be dealt with under various already existing laws such as lewdness or corruption of a minor. Don’t politicians have anything else to do other than crank out one law after another that cannot or will not be enforced or that ignores reality?

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  13. R. Franklin Carter

    Dear Mr. Cohen,

    I believe you have linked to the wrong provincial bill.

    You have linked to Bill 128, which Gerry Martiniuk introduced in 2008.

    The bill that Martiniuk introduced this past week is numbered 202, the Education Statute Law Amendment Act.

    If you visit the following Ontario government Web page and scroll down to Bill 202, you’ll see that the first reading of this bill was September 16, 2009:

    http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/bills/bills_current.do?locale=en

    Bill 202 does not appear to be a later version of Bill 128.

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    • Simon Cohen

      Mr. Carter you’re absolutely right, I’m embarrassed to admit!
      When I first went searching for the bill, I found Bill 128, which Martiniuk introduced as your rightly point out, in 2008. I read through the bill, found the section about filtering net content in schools and libraries and assumed it to be the bill in question.
      Fortunately, the wording in the new Bill 202 is nearly identical to that in 128 so my original posting is still accurate from a issue point of view.
      But thank you very much for pointing out this mistake… I have updated the post with the correct link and Bill numbering.
      Simon.

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  14. Simon

    The best prevention is to keep the computers supervised, whether by staff or by placing them in a busy part of the library. Generally people won’t look at porn when they know anyone can glance over and see the screen. Private computers are probably a bad idea because they will often be used EXCLUSIVELY for porn. Sensitive information (like info on STIs) can still be read privately, from a book (hopefully kids are still smart enough to think of looking in a book).

    I think a basic filtering should be in place, not blocking scientifically-appropriate words like “breast” or even “penis”, but blocking sex-related slang, like “tits”. A “thorough”, government-mandated filtering, however… would probably be a lot more trouble than it’s worth.

    I think restrictions on school computers are generally good, because they can specifically block out time-wasting sites, and kids usually don’t have enough unsupervised access time to figure out how to circumvent them.
    The 11-year-old girl commenting above who would spend a whole class trying to get on to metacafe really needs to have a teacher looking over her shoulder.

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  15. Steve

    Yes there are times where filters block wanted things and let through unwanted things, nothing is perfect. However being a public place, using the public’s tax dollars it should be blocked. If someone doesn’t like it then simply don’t use it, use your own laptop.

    The distiction is that no one there is paying for a service that is being blocked… it’s free. I do not want my 5 year old at the library sitting beside someone looking at porn and the staff cannot do anything until a formal complaint is filed. My sister is a librarian and constantly has the same people coming every day as their sole purpose to look at porn and they cannot do anything about it. This is not what libraries are intended for and this behaviour should be stopped. Yes everything can be circumvented but the basic framework should be there. Again, as a “free” service (it’s not free our tax dollars pay for it) if you do not like it go elsewhere.

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    • Alexei

      I completely disagree with your statement, I am a Tax Payer, as I believe most people that have commented are, and I absolutely DO NOT want information blocked. I agree that it is unfortunate that people do exploit the internet in Public Libraries but this can be controlled. I am not sure where your sister works but that Library should become more familiar with the law, The Library reserves every right to revoke the membership or ban a person from the establishment for accessing inappropriate websites, they do not need a “formal complaint” all that is needed is proof that a person was looking at the site which is not hard to do. My Mother is a Librarian at one of the Busiest Public Libraries in the Province and this issue frequently comes up.

      As for your comment that “We” can use our laptops to look at information that may get blocked, well not everyone can afford a home computer, we do not live in a Utopian society where everyone is rich as you seem to believe. Sorry to burst your bubble but Libraries are there to provide information and not very many Librarians are in favour of filters. Also your comment “if you do not like it go elsewhere” well I throw that back at you and say “If you do not like freedom to access information well you can leave this great Nation and move to Communist China, their government seems more your style.

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  16. Kevin

    Most kids are not interested in porn sites. They would prefer to waste their time playing games and texting their friends. Most boards have software to prevent both porn and social networking. It is ineffective because the kids know the ghost sites to get around the filters. It does prevent them from doing legitimate research for class on “adult” topics like alcohol, drugs, sexuality, and even history research topics like neo-nazis and anarchy. They end up doing half their research at home.

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