Internet Filtering Programs: Shortcomings and What They Mean to Parents

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The idea of an Internet filtering program is exciting to parents concerned about the safety of their families’ younger web surfers. A software program can block kids from intentionally or accidentally accessing sites that contain inappropriate content.

The online pornography business is a massive cash cow and access to adult materials is easy for even the most novice young computer user. Meanwhile, the Internet’s status as the world’s ultimate information repository means that there is other information available that parents may not want their kids to be reading. It’s no wonder filtering programs are becoming increasingly popular.

The programs work on a basic system. They use a database of words that are associated with inappropriate content and block a browser’s ability to access those sites containing the “bad words.” Many of the better programs allow parental manipulation of the data, allowing them to choose categories of information to block and/or to make manual adjustments to the keyword lists.

It sounds like an elegant solution to the problem. However, it suffers from a few weaknesses.

First, Internet filtering programs can be too restrictive. In many cases, the algorithms used are rudimentary and maybe triggered by the use of certain words, regardless of the context in which they are used. Filtering programs may stymie access to perfectly legitimate resources.

For instance, a filtering program may block all pages including the word “sex.” That might make a parent breathe a deep sigh of relief, but it also means that a child won’t be able to access biology materials discussing sex ratios within insect species. They won’t be seeing adult images, but they may also miss an insightful article about cable television syndication for their social studies class because it mentions “Sex and the City.”

One should be wary of filtering programs whose methods can restrict access only by damaging the overall value of the web significantly.

Second, Internet filtering programs aren’t foolproof. There are literally millions of pages featuring pornographic images or text that don’t get caught up in the programs’; filters. It could be because a tricky “adult” webmaster is using an intentional misspelling in hopes of attracting
visitors. It may because the text features terms that simply didn’t make the list. It could be because the filters can’t really “read” images or certain page elements.

Internet filters will keep kids out of many bad virtual neighborhoods, but they are not foolproof.

Third, some filtering programs can be problematic in terms of actual computer use. They might slow access to even legitimate pages significantly. They can be a drain on system resources, making a computer operate at a lower level of efficiency. Although this problem isn’t universal, it can be a headache–especially for those relying upon dial-up Internet connections.

So, does all of this mean parents should avoid filtering? Not necessarily. A good filtering protocol used in conjunction with monitoring and blocking strategies can afford a relatively high level of protection, especially when supplemented with good child-parent communication.

Filtering can be a decent tool. It is not, however, a foolproof defense mechanism.


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