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Tuesday 3 April 2007

How to disable web filter software


I had a comment following up a previous post about the Web filter, SurfPatrol. A local council had just installed it.

Web filters have a terrible rep. Largely for what's called 'inappropriate blocking'.

Because artificial intelligence isn't that advanced - lots of claims about reading flesh tones like the one on the right - sorting out one site from the other is often not as sophisticated as you might think. Basically, it does boil down to the words in the site.

So, firstly, mistakes get made. Hilarious mistakes and Breast Cancer site blocking type mistakes.

But, secondly, the lists Filter (AKA Censorware) companies compile of categorised sites are proprietary - you don't get to see under the hood - and they are well-known for, for example, including sites which criticise them in those lists. The Register has discovered itself blocked in that way.

The other point is that companies are American and may/may not carry over those cultural values into those proprietary lists.

What this means is that with the best will in the world, you cannot avoid inappropriate blocking when you buy these products. And this can have unintended, negative consequences .. like .. blocking rape-crisis, blocking sex education, blocking drugs counselling, blocking Nazi sites from history students.

As you might imagine, gay and lesbian sites get hit disproportionally hard — 'collateral damage'.

People, especially Councils, really don't want this but there's no real way of avoiding it although 'whitelists' are a big help.

The other area where Filter companies have been heavily criticised is for their marketing - their playing on fear to make money (they are extremely profitable and the market is growing). Cybersitter, for example, notoriously put out marketing within hours of the Columbine Massacre.

Needless to say, the War On Terror™ has proved similarly profitable. The CEO of Surfcontrol was recently quoted as saying: "I'm not trying to pick up on an emotional chord, but there are probably cyber terrorist cells inside companies, I don't mean some disgruntled employees ..."

So what do you do?

All the advice you will read on kids and the web comes back to supervision and parental engagement — as well as describing filters themselves as 'only partially effective'.

Filters are never spoken of as anything but a support and offering reassurance - and the Filter companies play very heavily on the latter (for companies they offer legal reassurance).

Computing Which? has the following top tips for protecting children online:

  • Keep PCs in a shared living area — not a child's bedroom
  • Supervise children's online activities
  • Encourage children to discuss any unsavory content they've found
  • Warn children about the potential dangers of chatrooms
  • Use parental control software but don't over rely on it
  • Change your parental control access password regularly

  • To which I would add: Teach them what's an advert
However, if you are effectively monitoring people's (not children's) web use anyway - isn't that the best policing? If you know your web use is recorded? One of the side-effects of buying censorware for a network is that web use in general drops off. This isn't necessarily a good thing.

This side of managing web use is always the forgotten bit - managing self-censorship. If you are a public body you really need to be simultaneously reassuring people that - no- we don't mind you accessing rape crisis sites and - yes - we want to be told if our Web Filter's blocking this and, yes, it's confidential.

Managing web use isn't and can't be just about technical solutions.

And how to disable filtering? See Peacefire and/or

This is the last point — smart kids can get around it.

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