Indecency All Around with Content Filtering

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-10-08 Print this article Print

Opinion: Great tools are available for those of you who would take everything pleasant off the Internet. You don't own your employees, so don't treat them like chattel.

In the beginning, there were pictures of women on the Internet, and they were without clothing. And the industry created content-filtering software to protect children from the images, and it was good. Not great, but pretty good. Youd think there would have been major technological advances in the content-filtering industry since its genesis back in the mid-90s, but you might be surprised. At the heart of it all is still a group of people surfing the Web and rating URLs for various characteristics.

The characteristics used to be things most of us agreed were objectionable, or at least we would say so in public. Things such as pornography, violence, racism. Certainly, this is still a big reason for buying such products for an enterprise or anywhere else, such as a library.

Now, were also hearing about filtering as a productivity tool. Are your employees spending company time buying flowers for their wives? Block them! Are they checking the score of the ball game? Not if you have anything to say about it. Obviously, you have to prevent them from using and other job sites (unless, perhaps, they are in HR and recruiting). You can even stop them from checking their personal Hotmail account.

I dont want to go overboard on the subject. Technology like this can be used for reasonable purposes. Maybe Im just old-fashioned, but I have no trouble telling my employees that they can get their online porno at home if they must have it. There are other categories I can imagine have no place at all at ones place of work.

But when shopping and other light, innocent distractions are blocked entirely, its a sure sign that youre working for Scrooge and Marley. Clearly, its possible to abuse such things—one vendor told me about some huge percentage of enterprise bandwidth used for management of fantasy football teams—unless its your job to manage your fantasy football team (is your company hiring?). But its also possible to use them only slightly and still get your work done.

The better tools have more flexibility in their management. A PC Magazine review earlier this year talked about some of the management options. Some products allow you to specify the times of day, lunch hour for example, when nonwork stuff may be done. A better option, at least as far as Im concerned, is to set a certain percentage of time, say 10 minutes in any four-hour window, when such sites may be visited, although the statelessness of most of the Web could make it difficult to determine the duration of a visit to a page. Im not sure whether any of the vendors try to do this.

The best solution is not to block such things, but to log their access. A good tool will log everything and provide reporting tools to let you know that employee so-and-so is chatting about boy bands for half of the day. Then you can do your management job and tell her to do hers. By not blocking things, employees who arent abusive will know you trust them, and maybe you wont have to block after all.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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