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Why I hate web content filtering systems

While on holiday for the weekend, I have been browsing RSS feeds using NewsRob, a convenient offline RSS reader which synchronizes with Google Reader. I came across an article on Kirrily Robert’s blog on the use of the word “offense” in the context of sexism. The RSS content indicated that there were several comments on this post, and so I clicked through to check it out. The result was this:

Screenshot-SonicWALL - Web Site Blocked - Shiretoko

My phone was connected to the hotel’s WiFi, which apparently has a SonicWALL content filter installed. This filter seems to think that Kirrily’s blog is “Adult/Mature Content”. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps because the word “sexism” has “sex” in it?

SonicWALL has a web site where one can view their ratings for arbitrary web sites, and it confirms that infotrope.net (apparently the whole site) is classified as Category 6: Adult/Mature Content and Category 41: Society and Lifestyle. There is no explanation of what these categories mean, or how the classification process works.

They provide a form to request that they reevaluate their rating of a particular site, so I did that. Without knowing why they classified this site the way they did, I don’t see how a reevaluation will help, though. They asked me to suggest better categories for it, but none of them made sense. They can’t be serious about using a list of a few dozen static categories for all of the content on the web. Can they?

I wrote them a short note explaining that I did not think the site merited an “Adult/Mature” content rating, a euphemism usually reserved for pornography. I have very little hope that this action will ever elicit a response, and it certainly won’t restore my access to the site this weekend while I’m here. I am not a customer of SonicWALL, and don’t expect ever to be.

I will mention to the hotel that their system caused this problem for me, but I don’t expect them to act on this complaint either. Companies which install content filtering systems don’t plan to spend time maintaining them to make sure that they provide a good quality of service, and this is sure to seem like an unnecessary hassle to them.

This is why I hate content filtering systems. They disenfranchise end users by making content decisions on their behalf, and make it their responsibility to work through the bureaucracy when it goes wrong.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 8, 2009 at 22:23

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

12 Responses

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  1. Content filtering is, for me anyways, much more about legal risk mitigation than actually keeping boobies off the screen. The black and white clarity of the filter combined with the fact that false positives aren’t a litigable issue and the responsibility for the initial state of the filter being provided by the vendor passes the buck down the line at the expense of the legitimate users’ experience. The most frustrating thing about it is that everyone involved is trying to do their jobs: lawyers aren’t trying to keep the org out of court, managers are trying to keep their employees employed, and the techs are trying to mind their own business (maintaining the resource).

    In organizations where the technical staff doesn’t get to call all of the shots, legal ends up pushing their own agenda and winning, since lawsuits are a lot more tangible than grumpy nerds. Hotels, airports, municipalities, etc. all have a huge cultural deficiency when it comes to reconciling legal risk with technical matters, and I don’t much see a societal shift towards personal responsibility coming anytime soon. This doesn’t necessarily apply quite so strongly to networks provided for customer use, but I can see situations where legal says, “what if someone is using the hotel wireless to look at porn in the lobby? are we liable?” and I really don’t know the case law on it, if any even exists. It’d be nice if public decency laws could cover these sorts of issues instead of civil lawsuits…

    Stephen Crim

    August 8, 2009 at 23:34

  2. FWIW, I also asked for a review, and classed my site as “Technology” since that’s what I blog about more than most other subjects.

    Kirrily Robert

    August 9, 2009 at 00:57

  3. […] Matt Zimmermann posted on his blog: While on holiday for the weekend, I have been browsing RSS feeds using NewsRob, a convenient […]

    • I agree with stephen about why web filtering is in place.

      That being said, filters are annoying. Renting a server and using it as a proxy is the way to go for unfiltered access…

      Kevin DuBois

      August 9, 2009 at 08:22

  4. I’m with the first comment. The point of a lot of these filters is to make the web in these locals family friendly. Consider if someone is surfing in the lobby or an airport, with children around, blocking certain content, whether they go there intentionally or not, prevents irate fathers and mothers from taking their shocked children to management.

    Censorship while distasteful for some, is a needed reality in the diverse world in which we live.

    Joseph James Frantz

    August 9, 2009 at 05:32

    • If you s/Censorship/Web filtering/ I would agree with you, apart from the bit where IT DOESN’T WORK. This SonicWall filter classifies http://kotaku.com/ — a site with 12 pages of search results for “rape” — as “games”, but my personal webpage, where I’ve been blogging about technology, and more recently about women in open source, as “Adult”.

      Kirrily Robert

      August 9, 2009 at 19:17

      • Kirrily,

        Filtering to remove content is censorship. I know a lot of folks think censorship is only something the government can do, but it’s not.

        In any case I’m not supporting or opposing any specific “web filtering”. I’m merely pointing out why in public places like Airports and Hotels, the legal teams may decide it is better to err on the side of reductive content to avoid the lawsuits that would arise from angry parents wanting things to always be “family friendly”.

        I realize this often leads to ridiculous and often contradictory controls. I’ve seen parents rail against language on the web, while calling their children the worst of names. I’ve seen folks insist we speak a certain way in chat and watched them violate their own rules.

        So I hope this explains I’m not supporting the decisions (nor opposing them, as folks have a right to block on their networks, blogs, business sites, etc what they will). Just suggesting why it is so.

        Joseph James Frantz

        August 10, 2009 at 02:05

  5. Kirrily Robert has posted a detailed response on her blog at http://infotrope.net/blog/2009/08/09/feminism-pornography-censorship/


    August 9, 2009 at 10:20

  6. Yes, the goal is to mitigate legal risks. No, shifting the responsibility to someone else is not the solution. Giving in to the unreasonable demands of people who are more easily shocked by a pair of breasts than by the barbaric violence shown on prime time TV is not the solution either. Educating them all to the wonders of sex and to the dangers of violence and warfare is.


    August 9, 2009 at 16:04

  7. i realize this is an old thread, but i felt obligated to comment.

    filtering content isn’t just about censorship or liability. many “questionable” sites in general and porn sites in particular are common attack vectors for malware. as a former network administrator i can’t tell you how many hours of my life were wasted performing malware cleanups, and how many more i saved after i installed sonicwall’s CFS (and their gateway antivirus product as well).

    every time i see an article about this, i think two things: 1) whoever’s bitching has never had to deal with all the repercussions of unfettered internet access, especially in a public environment; and 2) every content filter system in the world is imperfect — just like all technology. sonicwall has come a LONG way with theirs — in two years at my present company as a sales engineer, our sonicwall has never once blocked access to something i needed. websense and N2H2 are also very good these days, but mistakes will happen.

    as a social libertarian i despise filtering on principle, but principle doesn’t pay the bills and as a network geek i am profoundly thankful that such tools exist.


    March 5, 2010 at 17:45

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