Research Confirms The Anecdotal Evidence: Internet Content Filters Are A Waste Of Money

from the bad-ideas-badly-implemented dept

Internet filtering — whether it’s for copyright reasons or “for the children” [INSERT FAVORED OFFENSIVE CONTENT HERE] — doesn’t work. It certainly never works as well as advertised. And when those ads are being paid for with your tax dollars to push filters that make the internet worse for the sake of making the internet “safer,” you’d probably like to ask for a refund.

The UK is implementing porn filters and adding in fun stuff that’s less definable like “extremist content. ” Governments all over Europe want the biggest service providers to filter out whatever happened to be offending them this legislative session. Most recently, it was copyright infringement. Fortunately, the EU’s proposed filtering legislation died before it could ruin the internet, but its unwieldy corpse is bound to be reanimated by seething publishers and performance rights groups.

But, hey, maybe a metric ton of anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to convince you filtering doesn’t work. Maybe you need more than failure after spectacular failure to erase your faith in harder nerding/legislative busywork. Maybe you’re cool with overblocking and will simply close your eyes (and your browser) when the filter doesn’t do any filtering at all.

If you’re skeptical, there’s always science. A recently-released research paper confirms what everyone (except politicians, moral majority types, legacy content industries…) already knows: internet filters aren’t worth the bits they’re expending.

In a paper entitled Internet Filtering and Adolescent Exposure to Online Sexual Material, Oxford Internet Institute researchers Victoria Nash and Andrew Przybylski found that Internet filters rarely work to keep adolescents away from online porn.

“It’s important to consider the efficacy of Internet filtering,” said Dr, Nash. “Internet filtering tools are expensive to develop and maintain, and can easily ‘underblock’ due to the constant development of new ways of sharing content. Additionally, there are concerns about human rights violations – filtering can lead to ‘overblocking’, where young people are not able to access legitimate health and relationship information.”

The lede isn’t buried. The first paragraph of the article demonstrates that confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.

Results suggested that caregiver’s use of Internet filtering had inconsistent and practically insignificant links with young people reports of encountering online sexual material.

If you want to believe it’s working, you can. But you’d better not ask the people it’s supposedly protecting. Because it isn’t. As the report notes, filtering systems — especially those erected through government mandate — are the worst of both worlds. They both underblock and overblock, creating two problems and zero solutions.

Despite their wide adoption in the developed world, filters are expensive and imperfect technologies in three key ways: First, in financial terms, they are costly to develop and maintain, and even if offered free at the point of use, their costs are ultimate borne by the consumer or taxpayer. Second, in practical terms, they present the problem of underblocking, a phenomenon in which new problematic sites, content, and apps may slip through. Finally, in informational terms, filters also present the problem of overblocking, wherein the content is unnecessarily blocked, restricting access to necessary health, cultural, and social information. In practice, this means that filters offer only imperfect protection, and impose informational costs on children and adolescents seeking legitimate information, contrary to the information rights recognized in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Overblocking weighs most heavily on those who lack accessible sources of information offline; research suggests that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning adolescents, for example, are particularly reliant on the Internet for information about health and relationships.

Filters are a waste of time and money. The only value they add — if it can even be called that — is a slightly smug feeling of wellbeing for those who implement them. Politicians and caretakers like filters because it lets them believe they’re doing something. But research shows they may as well have done nothing at all.

We found that this protective effect was modest, accounting for less than 0.5 percent of the variability we observed in our outcome variables. In other words, more than 99.5 percent of whether a young person encountered online sexual material had to do with factors beside their caregiver’s use of Internet filtering technology.

It’s one thing when a parent or direct caretaker spends their own money to buy something that doesn’t work. It’s quite another when a government mandates it, requiring every tax payer to pitch in for useless services. But there’s nothing in this report that will dissuade filtering advocates from advocating for more filters. Evidence and research is no match for fervent beliefs.

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Comments on “Research Confirms The Anecdotal Evidence: Internet Content Filters Are A Waste Of Money”

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Anonymous Coward says:

a waste of money they may be as far as everyone else is concerned but they are NOT as far as the entertainment industries. when they are doing their best to get total control of the best invention on the planet since the wheel, anything that helps them achieve that is going to be brought in, courtesy of just about every government, court and law enforcement agency everywhere!!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Perhaps it is time for the government to stop accepting parents abdicating their responsibilities.
If you don’t want your kid to see things, tell them to not do it. If you catch them doing it, take away the access until they learn the rules. Stop demanding a magical solution, THAT NEVER WORKS NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU WANT IT TO, that will keep you from having hard discussions with your spawn.

Please for the love of all that is holy stop pretending the rest of the world has to wear long skirts to hide those sexy sexy ankles to protect your child’s purity of heart.
Your kids have seen a boob, long before you wanted them to.
Your kids have heard about teh sex, long before you wanted them to.
Rather than throw up your hands, perhaps do the hard thing & address the tough topics… unless you want to end up taking care of your grandkids while your child finishes high school.

You hand your child a $1000 phone, with access to all of the good & bad in the world and somehow think others should protect your kids… you complain you can’t control them or stop them… but expect others to do it…

Parenting 101 – They are YOUR shitty children, you are required to have the tough conversations, make rules, enforce them and not just sit back and hope it will all work out just fine b/c the team at FB will protect your kid (That team at FB thinks InfoWars qualifies as real news… still willing to abdicate your responsibility?)

DannyB (profile) says:

Not a waste of money

Internet filters are in fact very useful.

Under the guise of “Think Of The Children”, someone gets to have control points where they can monitor, record, edit, censor, or even outright block internet traffic.

It’s legally sanctioned. And it has a high moral sounding justification.

Waste of money? I would say they call it “cheap at that price”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not a waste of money

“Internet filters are in fact very useful.
– Very useful to those who desire censorship capabilities. Where would you like to not go today?

“It’s legally sanctioned.”
– This is simply an excuse as there are many laws which are not morally supportable.

“And it has a high moral sounding justification.”
– The end always justifies the means.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not a waste of money

I only said it was useful. I left it as an exercise for the reader to decide who it was useful for.

In certain repressive regimes it is legally sanctioned for police to steal people’s money, without any criminal charges, and call it “asset forfeiture”. So legally sanctioned does not necessarily mean it passes the “moral” sniff test.

They never come right out and say “the end justifies the means”, but they actually believe it does. I doubt they can even quite admit that to themselves internally.

Daydream says:

The point was never whether it works or not anyway.

Internet filtering has never been about ‘protecting the children’ or ‘stopping extremist content’ or ‘public safety’ or anything like that.
Filtering is, at its heart, a form of bullying, or trolling, or otherwise intentional trouble-causing. It’s politicians going ‘I don’t like people reading about that sort of thing, so I’ll make them stop’.
It’s nothing to do with doing good for the community, it’s just some weenie exploiting their power to push innocent people around for their own amusement. When they read news stories about stuff being filtered at their demand, they giggle and touch themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

The people, who push and insist on these filters will probably welcome those sideeffects:

"young people are not able to access legitimate health and relationship information."? Good, no sex till you are married (preferably without preceeding relationships, just let your parents choose your partner)!

"Filters destroy online content"? Good, go back to cable and be gratefull if you can afford the price hikes!

"Expression and content creation become impossible on the Internet"? Learn your place and go back to the labels!

Glenn says:

What a pity...

For thousands upon thousands of years parents were focused on raising theirs kids to prepare them for life as an adult as soon as it could be done. Mostly this meant keeping their kids around them and giving them responsibility for real life activities. Kids weren’t merely allowed to “grow up”; they were encouraged to. Nowadays it’s the opposite–childhood is so important after all.

Yeah, life is so much better now (chokes back laughter).

tp (profile) says:

Filtering absolutely necessary...

Filtering is absolutely necessary requirement for the companies. Current practise seems to be to immediately publish the material when end user presses “publish” button. If it happened to be copyright infringement material, they will still publish it without even checking it before publication. If this kind of crap keeps happening often enough, it’s no wonder that there will be rise of demands for filtering the content _before_ publication.

Content owners of popular works don’t need to watch idly while their products are being stolen in the marketplace, enabled by the platforms that do this publish operation without considering consiquences. These platforms get the benefit of the publish operation, even if the content was pirated. This means part of the money they receive really belongs to the content owners. Thus the platforms are in debt to the content owners, and owners are guaranteed to fetch the money once opportunity to do so arises.

Anonymous Coward says:

Any filter can be circumvented by anyone who knows what they are doing. As the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

It is just like the filering the previous owners of the Taco Bell franchaise here. Despite blocking of VPN and sniffing SSL connections, I found a way to get past their filtering using my home network.

I would log on to my SSL proxy on port 443, and then connect to my normal PPTP VPN on UDP port 1701, by using my networks internal address of 192.168.1, instead of the external Internet address for it, and their firewall let it through. If I had used the normal Internet IP address, it would have been blocked, but using the internal address on my own network of, once I had connect to the SSL part of my proxy, worked. That was a flaw in their filter that would let me access websites that would otherwise be blocked.

And using that flaw to bypass their web filters did not break either California law, or federal law, and there is no federal law that makes bypassing internet filtering a criminal offense.

Neither the CFAA, or California’s computer crime laws make it a crime to bypass web filtering.

tp (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And using that flaw to bypass their web filters did not break either California law, or federal law, and there is no federal law that makes bypassing internet filtering a criminal offense.

If this is true, it’s likely to change in the future. The reason is that bypassing other technical protection measures like passwords is already illegal. Accessing computer systems which have been protected by password is illegal, if proper authentication mechanisms are being bypassed.

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