Censorship and Filtering

1999: To begin, I want to thank Charles W. Moore of MacTimes for bringing up the subject of censorship and Web filtering (see Thin Edge Of The Wedge: Why Internet Censorship Is A Bad Idea [no longer online]). Over the past two days, AppleLinks (It Is Too Censorship!) and MacBC (Is Filtering the Same as Censorship?) have also joined the conversation.

In some ways, I think we have been talking past each other. We all agree that:

  • Censorship is bad. Free speech is good.
  • Parents have a duty to their children. Providing guidance for web access should be part of that.
  • Filtering is imperfect.

Where the problem arises is the implementation of filtering. We all agree that placing filtering software on your own computer or network can help prevent access to portions of the web we deem inappropriate for our children.

We disagree that large ISPs should be required to provide filtering options to their subscribers, whether for free or at additional cost.

There is great potential for filtering, potential both for good and evil.

For instance, filtering can block out known sex sites, either by looking for keywords or having researchers scour the web. With automated searches, there’s always the danger that any site mentioning “breastfeeding” or innocently using one of the other blocked words would be inaccessible.

And there’s no way a filter can know whether a new site is objectionable until that site has been cataloged. As the AFA website notes, there seem to be thousands of new sex sites every day. Even if your filter accesses a central registry, odds are that there will be objectionable sites that have not been added to the registry.

Worse, some filtering software has an agenda. CyberPatrol, a leader in content filtering, believes we should be protected from anti-gay sites. The AFA, on the other hand, believes we should be protected from pro-gay propaganda. In fact, if you use CyberPatrol, you can’t even visit the AFA site without using an override password.

Another problem, one which filtering by the ISP handles, is the dearth of filtering software for anything but Windows 9x and NT. Got Mac? Then you can’t use the AFA’s filtering program.

Having an override password is a whole ‘nother can of worms. On the one hand, if the kids figure it out, they’ve completely defeated the point of your filtering software. On the other hand, it also tells them that there are two standards: one for adults who know the password, and one for kids.

And we know how kids feel about double standards.

Who Makes the Filters

In the end, the question even more important than whether parents or ISPs provide the filtering software is this: Who makes the filters. Do you want pro-gay CyberPatrol or the anti-gay AFA deciding what sites fit which categories? Worse yet, do you trust your government to do it?

The whole thing begins to sound a bit draconian.

The best filter is being there with your kids when they’re online – and read up on the subject (a few books are listed below). But if you can’t be there to supervise them, you might want to look into filtering, either via software on your computer or a program offered by your ISP.

If so, research it. Find out how much control you have over what is and isn’t blocked. Find out if sites you find objectionable are blocked – and those you approve of are allowed. Don’t assume the people who created any filter see things the same way that you do or have the same standards you do.

Then find out how easy it is to override your settings or hack your password. (Good resource: PeaceFire, an anti-censorship site, has tips on bypassing CyberSitter, Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny, SurfWatch, and proxy servers.)

And remember, no matter what you do, your children may have unrestricted access to the web at school, in the local library, or at a friend’s house.

Your best bet is to raise them right, trust your moral guidance has rubbed off, and trust them to do the right thing when you’re not able to monitor them.

Anything less tells them you’re afraid that they can’t stand up on their own and face the world without you.

Further Reading

keywords: #censorship #internetfiltering