Government Filtering: Not the Answer

Awhile back, in response to a particularly naive column defending Australia’s proposed Internet filter on the basis that it will protect kids from child pornography, I wrote a piece on the HuffPost explaining why filtering isn’t the solution.  Yet, similar articles keep cropping up.  Most recently, CJ Lambert, writing for New Zealand’s 3 News, argues that “normal people” should ask their ISPs to take action:

The normal people need to start making more noise and telling their providers that they want to look at pussy cat images (and not that other kind that comes up in Google).

While I find this particular request a bit bewildering (what’s wrong with adults looking at adult porn?), I get where Lambert is coming from: She’s looking for a solution to protect her children from vicious images online.  The problem?  Government or ISP-level filtering is not the solution.  Here’s why:

1. Filtering, no matter how layered, will not block all of its intended targets.

Let’s say you wanted to implement a comprehensive government- or ISP-level filter in a country to rid the Internet of pornography.  You would first block all known URLs dealing in pornography, simple.  You would then implement DNS filtering to block domains and sub-domains known to peddle porn.  Simple as well.  You might then implement keyword filtering for any and all keywords related to pornography, in the hopes of catching every offender.  None of these options will block all porn.  It might block a great deal of it, in English (or your country’s language), but it won’t get every site.  Nevertheless, kids won’t run the risk of stumbling upon the most obvious of porn sites, so you can turn your back for a few minutes.

2. Government level filtering is not the solution to family-level problems

I empathize with Lambert’s point of view, but I most definitely do not agree with her when she says:

I hope you tin-foil helmet wearing civil libertarians factor that in when you blaze on forums about human rights and freedom of expression. The rights of kids to be safe from sickos should always be higher on the list.

I don’t have kids.  I don’t want kids.  And while I do wish for a healthy society, implementing a filter, such as that proposed in Australia, brings in a pretty serious risk of blocking more than just porn (and again, why are we trying to prohibit adults from seeing porn?).  Fact: Every single government with a filtering mechanism in place blocks more than just porn. France blocks a couple of sites about Nazism.  The UAE blocks some social networks.  And Australia’s leaked blacklist filter included the web site of a dentist (had the list been implemented, it would’ve caused unknown damage to the dentist’s business). Government level filtering is not the solution to family-level problems.  Concerned parents should pay attention to what their kids do online, urge their schools to do the same, and if they so desire, implement filtering at the home level.

3. Filtering Child Pornography Does Not Rid the World of Child Pornography

Filtering child porn at the government level means that people in a single country cannot view it.  Even if the filter was 100% effective, however, people outside of that country would still retain viewing ability.  If we’re concerned about kids, we should be concerned about all kids, not just our own, and not just our own country’s.

The problem with filters is that they block porn, but that porn still continues to be produced, and is simply pushed underground, to be traded via P2P networks, or offline, as it was in the days before the Internet.  The better solution is going after the hosts, prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law, and working to go after the most dangerous criminals: the pornographers themselves.

4 replies on “Government Filtering: Not the Answer”

Hi Jillian,

Yes and yes HOWEVER you missed the first part of the post where I said

“Let’s be clear. My concern is about kids viewing porn and the impact it will have on their attitudes toward the opposite sex and ability to have healthy adult relationships. What two consenting adults do in their own time is not my concern.”

My concern is that we have stopped looking for a solution and are letting children down by letting the details of filtering blur the goal. Kids need to be safe on the Internet and the apathy towards pornography to the point where it is becoming normalised for children is a worry. I wish the outrage around freedom of expression matched the outrage around graphic images, abuse and objectification of people.


I completely understand your concern about children, but again, I feel strongly that the rest of us should not be held responsible for lazy parenting. If parents don’t want their kids viewing porn, they shouldn’t let them use the Internet without full supervision. I grew up a digital native (well, sort of — we got the Internet when I was 11), and my parents taught me right from wrong. They also supervised me online, for the most part, and had discussions with me when/if I got into something unsavory.

I do see the damage in porn, don’t get me wrong. But a government-level filter is not the answer, and I don’t think we’re being too cautious when defending free expression online for adults.

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