Tools for Families
Why is filtering software controversial?
Like many issues related to the Internet, the use of filtering and blocking software has both advocates and critics. Most of the "controversy" regarding filtering software centers on its use in public institutions such as schools and libraries -- check out our Issues in the Community page for more information on the use of filtering tools in such places. Since GetNetWise is a resource intended primarily for families, and which tries to help them deal with the issues surrounding Internet use in the home, we believe that it must be the families themselves who resolve these complicated issues for their own lives.
No software product is capable of making the legal judgments necessary to filter out only material that meets careful legal definitions of obscenity or descriptions of material that is "harmful to minors." While the performance of filtering and blocking software has greatly improved in recent years, the amount and type of material that is filtered or blocked continues to vary significantly among different products. This has been a source of complaint -- some consumers have had difficulty finding out what kinds of information a given product will filter and how those decisions will be made. Many filtering products will limit access to some sites that most people would agree should not be blocked, and they will probably leave unfiltered some sites that many would agree are inappropriate for minors. How much over-blocking or under-blocking happens can vary significantly from one product to another.
Some people and organizations believe that the potential for over-blocking, and the resultant costs of restricting valuable content, outweigh the benefits of using filtering software to protect children. There have been calls to forgo the use of filtering software in schools and libraries in favor of protective methods that rely exclusively on education and supervision. It has also been contended that reliance on filtering software can lead parents into a false sense of security, and that it may leave children unprepared to deal with exposure to inappropriate content when it eventually occurs. Finally, some fear that the proliferation of blocking and filtering technologies, particularly those that work with labeling systems, could provide a framework that might facilitate government censorship of the Internet.
Most internet users agree that there is material available online that is inappropriate for children. Most of the filtering products available will prevent access to much of that material, particularly in the area of the sexually explicit. Even many opponents of filtering will agree that filtering and blocking software has become much more sophisticated in recent years, dramatically reducing the instances in which filtering software has blocked access to sites containing breast cancer information or chicken breast recipes.
Those who favor the use of filtering software have argued that the incidence of over-blocking is minimal. They point to the widerange of filtering software available, noting that many products give adult users a password that permits them to override the filter's decisions if they believe that the filter has incorrectly denied access to appropriate information. Many proponents of filtering also believe that exposure to inappropriate material will desensitize children in a way that is harmful and may conflict with the values their families hold. Some filtering supporters also discount arguments that the widespread use of these tools could lead to censorship. Their point of view is that filtering tools are vital, and can empower parents greatly, actually decreasing the need for any government action.
GetNetWise takes no position in the ongoing debate over online filtering. We believe that families should make informed decisions about whether or not to use filtering tools, time-limiting tools, family/child Internet use contracts, or any other tool or rule for using the Internet.
To that end, GetNetWise has tried to gather the kind of information that will help families determine whether any particular filtering tool fits their own values or circumstances. Families should have access to data on the kinds of information that are (or can be) filtered by a particular tool. They should be able to decide whether or not they want a tool that lets an adult with a password override or a way to edit the filter. Families with multiple children should be able to learn whether a tool can be set up to filter along different lines for multiple users. The ways in which a filter works (using human review of web pages, using key words, or using other filtering strategies) can also change the amount and type of information that is filtered. GetNetWise tries to help in this area, by providing the answers to some of these questions.
Not every type of filter will satisfy every family. Some families will decide that none of the filtering tools are for them. But parents will always need to remain involved in their child's online life. Kids will always need to know what their families' rules are and how to stay safe.