Friday, March 14, 2003

I Am Big Brother

I spent the afternoon yesterday browsing porn and doing internet searches on words like anal, babes and fetish. Actually, I was setting up internet filtering software for the computer lab in our shelter. It's probably the strangest thing I've ever had to do for Simpson. I'd already tried two shareware programs and found they didn't meet our needs. I was looking for something free (or very cheap) since we're facing a $100,000 budget deficit this fiscal year and that would use a filter instead of a site blocker. I also didn't want to wait any longer to hook up the shelter computers to our DSL line. The program I'm using has a built in list of words it screens for, everything from weapons and drugs to adult content and porn. I took about sixty words off the list because I wanted shelter guests to be able to access medical information and information on STDs and drug abuse. All of this effort is mainly to keep computer browsing in compliance with our no porn policy. I thought that there'd be other words on the "bad" pages that would screen those pages out, but I was wrong. When I started doing searches with the removed words, I'd get an eyeful about every other page in a Google search. Take the word incest for instance. Because a number of the women I worked with in the women's shelter (and probably a number of the men, too) were victims of childhood abuse, I wanted them to be able to access online support information for survivors. With incest removed from the filter, about every third page was porn. Drawing on the descriptive information so nicely provided on these pages, I tried expanding the filtered word index with phrases like "father daughter incest"and the ever popular "family incest." In the end, it looks like it's just going to be easier to include incest in the filter and unblock specific support sites. So far, I've had to add about eight of the words back onto the list and I'm only through the "i"s.

All of this censorship is warring with my freedom of speech tendencies, although I totally understand the shelter staff point of view. We usually have over seventy people in the shelter during dinner including children. The computer lab is in the dining room and very visible. We don't want anyone walking by or sitting nearby to get any unpleasant surprises. Originally, I planned on having people sign an acceptable computer use agreement before they could browse, but with only two or three staff on each evening we don't have anyone to monitor use. You figure out of 46 shelter guests a night and 80-120 on bed lottery nights, someone is going to look for porn or something equally offensive. Right now, I'm glad I'm not a librarian and dealing with this issue in an organization whose mission is to provide access to information for all people.

The filter itself, We Blocker, slows the computer down, often to a stall, when searching on iffy subjects. It doesn't appear to have an effect when you search on anything else. The program also lists all the websites browsed so I can check and make sure nothing's slipping through. Once I've got this computer set up, I'm going to have to copy the settings to five more PCs. So far, my vocabulary hasn't been expanded since the sites tend to be pretty unimaginative in their use of language. I did figure out that all someone needs to do to circumvent the filter is to use foreign language words for their search. I've already asked staff for a list of Spanish words to filter. The horror! The horror!

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