Tagged: monitoring

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.