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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Filed Under: censorship, copyright, eu, eu copyright directive, failures, filters, porn, upload filters


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2018 @ 4:13pm

    Re: Re:

    In order to violate the CFAA, or California's computer crime law, you have to have used a hacked, stolen, or otherwise illegally obtained password.

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