Thursday, November 14, 2013

Internet Pornography Filtering Petition - Why It Won't Work

Have you heard about the new petition to help protect us from Internet pornography? Depending on where you fall on the religious, technology, and political spectrums it's either a great idea or a terrible one. Here's what the petition says (for those that can't be bothered to click the above link):
In its current state, Internet porn seeks out users by email solicitations and massive amounts of free content throughout Internet browser searches. The average person, even children, can type in the word "cat" or "home" or "soup" and instantly be inundated with offensive and disturbing pornographic images. Parents and individuals have to go to great lengths to install Internet filters that often don't weed out all porn. We are asking for greater protection and responsibility from Internet Service providers and our country. We are asking that people who are interested in porn should have to seek it and choose it. They should have to "Opt In" for it by making arrangements to receive it with their Internet Service Provider. Everyone else should be free from it and assumed "Opt Out".
If only things were that simple! Here's my problem with this petition: it's not Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are somehow forcing people to "opt in" to pornography. Rather, it's the nature of the free and open Internet. Someone creates a site with pornography and it can be at any domain name -- for example, I believe LDS.com for a while was a pornography site (thankfully, that site is now Logical Design Solutions). This is why filtering companies and software were created, but they have to be continuously updated to keep track of all the places that have pornography, and inevitably they miss some of it. What's more, one person's definition of "porn" isn't going to be the same as my definition, so some would like to block all scantily clad female and male images where others are only concerned with nudity.

In effect, this is a petition to get government more heavily involved in our lives, when we have already seen that the government is generally incapable of effectively running so many things. How are Social Security, the Post Office, Electronic Voting, and ObamaCare Registration going if you think this is a good idea? We're trying to pass the buck to the ISPs to adequately filter all content for us. But what happens when some stuff doesn't get filtered? Or what happens when a site that we want to access that doesn't have pornography inadvertently gets filtered?

There was an idea going around a while ago to have .porn and .xxx domains and require all sites with pornography to register a new domain name with one of those suffixes. There was resistance for a variety of reasons, and ultimately it didn't happen. I wish it were as simple as just waving a magic petition wand and having the plague of pornography go away, but it's just not. While we're at it, can we also pass legislation to require ISPs to have an "opt out" feature for all viruses, malware, and other undesirable content? That would save me a lot of time cleaning infections on other people's PCs! If you really want to be safe, you're probably better off creating your own filter where only sites and IP addresses you specifically unblock are accessible -- good luck with that, considering there are 150 million domain names just in the most common Top Level Domains (.com, .org, .net, .info, .biz, .us).

I say that last sort of tongue-in-cheek, but that's really the crux of the problem. It's the same idea here as the thought that making all guns illegal will somehow stop criminals from using guns (or other weapons). And as a technology geek, my bet is that if this petition were to actually pass, we would end up with a watered down result that doesn't do much more than what we currently have, and we'd get people suing ISPs because they saw porn and hadn't opted in, and the result would likely be more legislation and higher prices for Internet access. We would also have "ostrich parents" that assume because there's a law in effect, they're now free from the responsibility to monitor their children and they can go back to sticking their heads in the ground.

My best suggestion: if you don't want you or your children to see pornography, find a good filter that will block most undesirable content and that gets updated regularly. Here's a site that has a few good suggestions, but let's be clear: you'll need to do work to protect your PC and family. Also, keep your PC in a location accessible to the whole family if at all possible, and more importantly spouses and parents need to be actively involved in monitoring Internet behavior. Don't forget smartphones and tablets either....

Also, I wonder if the petition hasn't worded things incorrectly. Maybe they just want all search providers to "opt out" of explicit search results by default? I believe Google already does this (and personally, it's the best search engine so why would you want to use anything else?), and Bing has this option as well (listed in the above link). I don't know about most other search engines, but there are many out there and I would recommend sticking to the bigger names like Google and Bing if you want filtered results. I'll also toss out a recommendation that OpenDNS has some reasonable filtering options for free, but it can slow down access to the Internet in some cases and as always: it won't protect you from everything (and a tech savvy youth can easily circumvent OpenDNS filtering).

I'm not sure what the best solution to the pornography problem is, simply because like so many things in life, it's a very complex topic. It's right up there with gun control, gay rights, abortion, religion, health care, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. for being wide open to differing opinions. Trying to involve the government in regulating the Internet in my opinion is about as effective as trying to have the government regulate the climate (which hasn't stopped them from trying).

To be clear: I believe 100% that pornography is bad for us -- for marriages, relationships, children, self esteem, the people involved in making it, and so on. I think any responsible adult should decide for themselves (and their family) what their stance is, and then research the most effective ways to protect yourself (or not, as the case may be). Parents in particular need to become more tech savvy in regards to the Internet so that they can understand what exactly their children are doing (on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) It's not always easy to do, no, but parenting has never been billed as "easy" as far as I'm aware.

Unfortunately, the real problem is for people like me. I'll be frank: like most (probably nearly all) males, I've seen pornography. It's enticing and addictive, and those are two adjectives that I like to avoid where at all possible. I would love to somehow have access to all of the great information and content on the Internet while at the same time being 100% free from the blight of pornography and other garbage. But it's not going to happen. I know enough that no person, petition, or government is going to stop me from viewing pornography...if I want to!

And at the end of the day, that's what it comes down to: developing the moral fiber and support system to help you avoid things that you know are harmful and addictive. So you take it one day at a time, occasionally make mistakes, and try to do your best to avoid it. If you're struggling with pornography, talk to your family, spouse, religious adviser, or find a 12-step addiction recovery group you can attend. And pray, because that will be far more effective than the petition.

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