The Uselessness of Internet Filtering

I attended a very convincing presentation about the ineffectiveness of internet filtering by Emily Lawrence and Richard Fry called “Pornography, Bomb Building and Good Intentions: What would it take for an internet filter to work?” at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Colloquium held in Toronto at the U of T on October 18th, 2014.

It basically argued that filters aim to prevent interactions between certain content and certain users. Actual filtering software is incapable of differentiating between which exact user (by age, maturity, prior knowledge, intent, etc) and which exact content is being accessed. Therefore filtering can never work without being magic or having mind-reading abilities. Perfect example that a friend and I just thought up, what if a teen is checking a porn site because she wants to make sure a photo of herself hasn’t been exploited on it? Filtering software couldn’t predict the intent and therefore would never be able to understand this user’s interaction and would prevent it from happening.

Tara Robertson came up with a list of internet filtering practices at public libraries in Canada and it I’m not surprised that it isn’t positive. Nearly all public libraries filter their internet.

I asked the presenters about what to do in the case of material that is illegal in Canada: obscene materials and child pornography. They agreed that these materials should be banned and brought up the fact that these materials involve concern over the production of the content being harmful rather than the case of porn where it is interaction of some users that is of concern, namely children or youth. For materials that are obscene or illegal, people would agree that all of the content should be made inaccessible to all of the users. In the case of filtering porn instead people do not agree because not all of the content needs to be filtered and not all of the users need to be protected, hence this disparity results in information access being restricted for users.

It was a very convincing argument that I probably fail to articulate as effectively, but it was a very meaningful discussion to me.