In April 2002, Toronto city councillors called on public
libraries to equip their computers with Internet filters -
that's software designed to prevent kids from gaining access
to sexually explicit, violent, seditious or hate mongering
Critics say that policy is a waste of time and money.
Among those critics is Bennett Hasleton. The 20-something
computer whiz from Seattle created a website —and an
international reputation— for
and monitoring software, programs he calls "censorware."
"I’ve always thought of it as a support group
for people who are too smart to buy into the conventional
wisdom about kids and the internet," Hasleton said.
Gordon Ross —CEO of NetNanny— caters to what
Hasleton calls the conventional wisdom. "There’s
certain things I don’t think children should be into,"
NetNanny is one of the better-known Internet filters. Others
include CyberSitter and CyberPatrol. There are more than a
hundred of these products, available from computer stores
or from the Internet for about $40.
"What we monitor and look at is mainly child pornography.
We keep the kids out of those sites, adult pornography, pedophilia,
and chat rooms where they may be solicited," Ross explained.
Bennett Hasleton doesn’t think Ross —or anyone
else— should be defining what young people should have
access to. His website (PeaceFire.org)
helps kids fight the "censorware" their parents
may have installed.
"We have a program on our site that’s clearly
labelled as the tool for disabling NetNanny," Hasleton
Ross suggests Hasleton might change his mind if he had kids
or grandchildren of his own. But he might have a harder time
dismissing some of the other well-known critics of filtering
The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library
Association oppose mandatory filters in schools and public
libraries in the U.S.
'Parent best filter': Cdn Library Ass'n
The Canadian Library Association says filtering software
often keeps out the good with the bad. The association says
the best filter is the child’s parent or guardian.
Cathy Wing makes a point of talking to her teenaged-daughter
Julia about the Internet. She’s a media education specialist
with the Media Awareness Network, an Ottawa-based organization.
Last year, the organization surveyed 1,000 parents and 6,000
young people across the country and turned up some interesting
and some alarming statistics.
"What we found was a big disconnect between what parents
thought their kids were doing on the Internet and what kids
were actually doing on the Internet," said Wing.
The survey asked about chat rooms, for example. They are
infamous for the opportunity they provide adults, misrepresenting
themselves as kids, to stalk young people.
Among the survey's findings:
- 70 per cent of 13 and 14 year olds visit chat rooms
- 60 per cent of 11 and 12 year olds visit chat rooms
- 20 per cent of parents know their kids visit chat rooms
Those kinds of statistics concern Toronto parent Daryl Monaghan.
When we first talked to the father of four —five years
ago— he had just installed NetNanny.
When we checked back with him, Monaghan said the product
didn't work for him. He says people are getting craftier about
disguising the true nature of their sites.
"People who create these sites are a heck of a lot smarter
than me and they know how to get information through the Internet
so people can see it," said Monaghan.
Filters 80 per cent effective: study
An Australian study released in March 2002 says filters are
only 80 per cent effective at stopping the bad stuff. Gordon
Ross says all he can do is try to keep up with every new gambit.
"We continually search the web ourselves. We also have
organizations we work with who submit lists to us that have
been pre-screened," said Ross.
Monaghan says filters can be too effective, blocking a lot
of things they should let through, like recipes that include
chicken breasts. That same filter could prevent kids from
doing research on breast cancer.
Ross says the simple answer is turn the filter off for special
"If the child is going out there and doing a sex education
report for school, the parent can always do an override and
let the child go, but the child would have to go and ask the
parent for that."
16-year-old James Monaghan calls filtering software a waste
of money. "Any kid who knows his way around a computer
can crack his way through it," he says.
James told us he was able to find pretty much anything on
the web once he found his way around the filtering software.
Both generations of the Monaghan family have concluded that
enlisting technology to fight technology may not be the best
"I would say the best principle is no unsupervised access
if you’re uncomfortable with children on the Internet,"
Daryl Monaghan said.
Cathy Wing of the Media Awareness Network makes a distinction
between children and teens:
"We’re saying that when kids are younger it can
be a very handy tool. We’re saying understand the drawbacks
of filters, and don’t let it replace adult supervision."