Internet Filtering is Dumb

This is not a new story, but the topic of internet content filtering comes up from time to time, so I wanted to post this picture while I remember where it is.

Dumb Internet Filtering

From time to time, somebody suggests that filtering internet content at various points would be a good idea. Invariably, the argument behind it is “Think of the Children. Who is looking out for our children?”

There are all sorts of reasons why the concept is flawed, but one big gaping problem that most people seem to ignore is that filtering software is dumb. Human classifiers would make errors, but manual classification cannot possibly cope with the volume of existing and new content, so filtering software has to try to classify material based on a set of rules. This is always going to fail, both passing content that will offend and blocking inoffensive, important content.

This is not a very sharp photo, but it is the screen of a public internet terminal. The site I am attempting to view in my own twisted, lascivious way is Now instead of the pictures of train timetables without any clothes on that I was expecting to see, instead I get, “This page has been blocked by the Content Filter because it may contain adult content not suitable for a public environment”.

Who is looking out for our adults? Whether they are (relatively) clean living tourists trying to buy a train ticket from Portland to Seattle, or whether they are anorak wearing, trainspotting weirdos who get a perverse kick from looking at Amtrak fare information does not really matter. Adults should be free to look at this and similar transport related “adult content” without having to apply for permission.

On a related note, because filtering software is so dumb, parents should not allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security thinking that a machine is doing their job for them. Do you know where your teenager is now? At this very minute, they could be perusing a hard core bus timetable, or even scouring the net for uncensored videos of 747s taking off.