Why Internet Filters (Don’t) Work…

Via Sound Politics, I learned of this , where a high school student in Spokane was suspended after he created a Web site bypassing the school’s internet content filter.

There may be longer rants on this later, but the long and the short of it is that these filters are just another crutch to be used by uninvolved parents and officialdom, to give the appearance of being concerned and “safeguarding our children”, while leaving them unsupervised with an electronic babysitter that doesn’t truly work.

Let me rephrase that. They “work.” Getting them to work the way you as a parent want them to is difficult at the very best.

Why is that?

The first set of problems involves what is blocked. There are several basic ways that these “nanny” programs decide what web sites to block. There is a “blacklist” of blocked websites provided by the makers of the software. The person setting up the software can decide to block specific sites, or allow specific sites. Last but not least, the software can look for specific key words, and block any page that has those.

The second problem is the question of whether or not the software really can successfully prevent access to sites that it has been told to block.

Many critics of the software like to concentrate on the canned blocklists. Supposedly, the company automatically combs through all of the available webpages, and marks the ones with questionable content. They then review them to see if these sites are truly inappropriate, and, if so, put the site on the blocklist.

Given the number of sites in these blocklists, it truly is questionable as to how thoroughly these sites are actually independently reviewed, because blocked sites include or have included organizations such as Amnesty International, congressional representatives, and Banned Books Online. Some in truly paranoid fringe sometimes wonder if there is a conspiracy to block certain political views. Given the odd choices it is a valid question as to what degree the mores of the creators and perceived desires of the clients/parents bias the terms used to generate these blocklists.

Key words have their own problem. While it may not be an issue when the user is a five year old, teens at least will legitimately need access to websites on biology, etc. that may contain blocked key words. Both the “key word” method and the canned blocklists tend toward a significant false positives, sometimes over 50 percent.

A privately generated block list created by the parent or administrator is the only method that blocks exactly what the person buying the software wants (you can go everywhere but here), or conversely, allows access only to the places allowed (these are the only places you can go). The only problem is that setting up and maintaining these block lists can be very time consuming.

Maintaining these programs can be time consuming in general. If a site you want to allow access to, either for yourself, or generally, is blocked. you have to take the time to add it to an “allowed” list, or bypass it that one time.

All this aside, it still leaves open the question of whether or not this vast overkill prevents access to pornography and unwanted information in general, as well as whether or not the software can be bypassed for specific sites.

As the article I referenced above shows, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Face it. Just like books, TV, and anything else in life, the only way to make sure your kids stay safe online is to keep an eye on what they do, and teach them how to handle themselves.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Lars Kongshem:

Equally important, many educators say, is..(teaching) students…to use the filter that lies between their ears…this analogy offered in the National Research Council report is…apt: “Swimming pools can be dangerous for children….one can install locks,..fences, and…pool alarms….but by far the most important thing….is to teach them to swim.”

Geekspeak, Jargon, and Lingo

The BBC recently filed a report on the confusion that many users feel over geekspeak. It starts:

The average home computer user is bamboozled by technology jargon which is used to warn people about the most serious security threats online.

Many are often left vulnerable because they have no idea what they are supposed to be protecting themselves against, a survey for AOL UK has found.

Confusing “geek speak” used by experts and media included “phishing”, “rogue dialler”, “Trojan” and “spyware”.

On one hand, the article has a point. The jargon used for even the most basic desktop tasks in the computer industry can sound complex and arcane. It definitely doesn’t help when you combine the often devestatingly broad education (usually self-education) of most geeks with a sense of whimsy. Possibly the most common example of this is “spam,” so named because of a Monty Python routine where everything on the menu has spam, but it’s not something you want.

On the other hand, what is to be done? Like most technical fields, these terms are used to define, categorize, and explain without using five words where one can do. It’s the classic tradeoff of having to learn a larger vocabulary to use fewer, more-specific words. Since computer geeks have an easier time memorizing new terms, they tend towards more of them than some fields. Nevertheless, listening to biologists, electrical engineers, and other experts going on about their fields of work can cause even well-educated non-experts eyes to glaze over.

It also doesn’t help that the computer is such a versatile tool when compared to a car, or the¬†VCR’s that so many people have difficulty setting the time on. Computer makers try to make operating a computer look as easy as walking, but in terms of abstract complexity it’s at least as complicated in the number of subsystems and interactions as your typical car. While many people know enough about basic physical processes that they are fairly comfortable with their understanding of how a car works, the level of knowledge required to simply operate a car versus fixing a car is generally pretty low.

Sadly, operating a computer effectively is a far more complicated than operating a car. You really have to be closer to car mechanic than mere driver. Given how many supposedly mature adults cannot competently operate a car, this is disquieting.

So, part of the problem is that geeks come up with a lot of names and terms that seem flatly ridiculous to non-geeks. They use more of them because they tend to be pretty smart and can memorize these meanings pretty easily.

Another part of the problem is that these devices are far more complicated to operate reliably than people are led to believe.

Finally though, part of the problem is willful ignorance on the part of users. Many people who are perfectly willing to put in time for drivers education classes are not willing to proactively study the operation of something far more complex before they try to use it.