Do Filters Work?

I just read Andy Woodworth’s post about filters, and was reminded about something. A couple days ago, I visited my church’s website while in the library. We filter both public and staff computers … and guess what I found (see the image above)? My church’s website was blocked, because 8e6 (our filtering provider) thinks it’s a porn site. Wow – my church is apparently much wilder than I thought!

  • OK – first off, my church isn’t really all that wild. Probably much the opposite!
  • Second – it’s most likely filtered because of overblocking. Some web filters block whole webhosting services because of content. For example, if the webhoster hosts 20 “naughty” sites and 2 “nice” sites, all 22 sites will be labeled “naughty” (until someone tells the filtering company they’re wrong – then they usually correct the problem).

Do filters work?
Honestly, yes and no. Yeah, sure – most of the “usual sites” can be blocked (but not all – filters don’t catch everything). And no – the example above is a great example of a filter in action, unfortunately.

Another complaint
I’m also going to complain about the Safelibraryproject website, and the ALA page they quote (from the Office of Intellectual Freedom). Because both sites seem to be putting a bit of spin on their ideas, to prove their points. Plus, there are some glaring problems on each page. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s start with Safe Library Project:

  • Just being picky here – guys, please get a proofreader! Your About page is labeled “Abou” – which would be forgivable if it weren’t for some other errors on the “Abou” page that could have easily been caught by proofing your content. Errors like these:
    • “Most all pornography commercial websites is hardcore” I think you meant “are” …
    • “the overwhelming amount of Internet porn is be soft-core” I think you meant “is” …
    • “This in not accurate” You are correct – not accurate at all!
  • Enough grammar cop stuff. How about this? “Most all pornography commercial websites is hardcore and therefore can be charged by prosecutors as obscene.” – ok. Can you prove that, with citations?
  •  “The seemingly endless number of free porn sites depicting actual or simulated sex and other lascivious depictions are also hardcore and can be charged as obscene.” Again, ok … “seemingly endless” … proof? With citations? “can be charged as obscene” … again – proof?
  • “Does ALA really think the American public is so uninformed…” The information you quote wasn’t really meant for the “American public.” It was meant for libraries creating public PC and Internet Access policies.
  • “The ALA site also strongly suggests that Internet filters are inadequate” – well, yeah – there’s a reason for that. See my example above.
I have no issue with their viewpoint (though I don’t agree). Viewpoints differ, and you have to have two sides for a debate. But if you make broad statements like they do, you should back them up with facts. Or you’re just blowing smoke.
And now for ALA. Go to the page Safe Library Project quotes (you have to copy/paste the link text, since for some odd reason they didn’t actually make it a link). I think some improvements are in order here, too. For example:
  • The paragraph Safe Library Project quotes is an odd one, to me anyway. For example … “In the millions of Web sites available on the Internet” – way more than “millions” now.
  • “there are some—often loosely called “pornography” – Loosely? What? Where did that statement come from?
  • “A very small fraction of those sexually explicit materials is actual obscenity or child pornography” – ok. That’s also pretty broad statement. Can you prove that, with citations?
  • This info hasn’t been updated for 10-11 years. A LOT has changed on the web in 11 years. Maybe time for a rewrite?
  • The “Related Files” link at the bottom of the page is a broken link. That makes ALA look a bit shabby IMHO.
So – phooey on the spin. Do you filter? Does it work? Do people complain? Is it as bad as the Safe Library Project people think? I don’t think so – what about you?
  • Salina

    We filter at our library using OpenDNS.  We have also used SafeEyes.  I have had only a few false positives after over 5 years of using the services.  The main issue is that the filters are very easy to bypass using proxy surfing sites, however, OpenDNS seems to keep fairly current on those sites and blocks those as well.  Just have to stay one step ahead.

  • Jason

    When CIPA passed, I worked at a library that chose to filter, and I now work at one that doesn’t, so I’ve seen both sides.  For all of the build up and talk about the horrors of filters leading up to CIPA, I have to say that the rollout was very anticlimactic.  In the years that I was there, I saw some (but very few) examples of overfiltering and can’t recall anyone ever complaining about the filters being installed.  In fact, on the rare occurrences when a site was inappropriately blocked and the patron questioned why, they seemed appreciative that we had filters installed– even if it meant they had to ask us to unblock the site they wanted.

    At my current library, we filter the kids’ computers but not the adult ones.  We also do not limit what can be viewed on the adult computers (with the exception of images that are illegal like child pornography).  For the most part everything runs pretty smoothly, but we do receive the occasional complaint–usually from a parent–about what someone is viewing.  

    Personally, I fall on the side of no filters, primarily because I’m just liberal like that, but also because I think they result in a false sense of security for parents who may think a filtered computer has no chance of letting porn slip through.  Professionally though I can go either way and don’t think the quality of library service is diminished whatsoever if a community, administrator, or board wants to install filters.  You have to pick your battles, and I think there are much more significant ones to choose.  

  • Ellen

    Apparently my library filters out and labels it “sex” – irony much?

  • davidleeking

    Ha – now that is pretty funny! Probably because of the keywords found on the page. Can you take a screenshot of that, by any chance?

  • davidleeking

    I submitted the church website at 8e6’s reporting form, and received this reply within 15 minutes – “The site was saved erroneously in our library by IP
    address. The site will be re-categorized in our library update tonight. I’m
    sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.”

    I was right about the overblocking thing – blocking by IP address is the same thing. But at least the web filter company is responsive!

  • KathyS

    My favorite blocking instance was when a girl wanting to play an online paper doll game (from a site that our own kids section linked to!) was blocked, presumably because the paper dolls were naked. 

    But beyond that, our library provides optional filtering for adults, with privacy screens. The children’s computers are always at the highest filtering level. But I have had several patrons very upset about sites other patrons are looking at, that they can see in passing. Their objections are always the same, that “children can see, even with the privacy screens”

  • Marcie

    I worked at a library that filtered everything all the time, but then a Virginia court said that was illegal. So then they switched to a system of choice: adults could choose whether they wanted to be filtered, and parents would choose for their children. Hardly anyone chose to be filtered. That library also had privacy screens, but most of the time they ended up on the floor because it was hard to see the monitor through them and because the hooks that let the screen hang off the top of the monitor tended to break.

    My current library does not filter at all, and we have had very few instances of anything objectionable.

    Personally, I think librarians should be more proactive about teaching people how to search so they know how to avoid unsavory websites or to be aware when a search they do need to perform might include objectionable sites in the results. (Like when I was trying to look up a New Zealand brand of health food called Naked Bars. I did eventually find the right website, but they didn’t ship to the US.)

    I also think parents need to know how to search so they can teach their children. I don’t know that the library should be policing everyone.

    Also, from past experience in following ALA links, there are a lot of outdated webpages still live. I haven’t come across any recently, but ALA has redesigned their site at least once in the last few years, so there are either broken links or rather orphaned pages. Searching ALA isn’t always easy, but I recommend trying that to see if there is a more recent page on filtering.

  • Lori Ayre

    Hi David,

    Just an FYI for you and any library folks out there who need help selecting a filter or implementing one.  I have maintained for the last several years and it provides library folk a way to compare the product’s features and provides some guidelines on using filters.  I fall pretty much where Jason is on this topic.  I’m against them in theory but understand that they solve some problems in libraries.  But if you use them, you have to use them responsibly.  That’s why I keep the site going.  (And as a further aside, if anyone has a filter that they’d like to see included on my chart….nudge your vendor!  They have to enter all the data to get their product listed.)