Save the children (from porn)

Another day, another bit of blabbing on a radio programme. Yesterday’s blab was for Edinburgh station Talk 107, and the subject was pornography: specifically, stopping kids from seeing it. I’ve talked about the issue endlessly, but this time out as I trotted out the usual things – investigate parental controls, blah blah blah – I was thinking that parental controls are a pain in the arse.

Whether you’re on OS X or Windows, content filtering isn’t brilliant. Stick with the default browser and you’ve got a whitelist system (Mac and Windows), and in the case of Windows you can also use ICRA ratings, although I wonder how many people really know about it. If your browser’s Firefox, there’s a couple of add-ons and Greasemonkey scripts, and that’s about it.

One thing that struck me post-programme was: we’re getting quite good at identifying phishing scams, particularly now anti-phishing tech is in the major browsers. The filters are getting really good really quickly: I needed to get a screengrab of a phishing site the other week and it took hours, because every single fraudulent email in my inbox had already been added to the database.

Would a porn-filtering equivalent work? A cross-browser, cross-platform, not-run-by-lunatics, kids-can’t-bypass-it system that (when enabled) would compare a site or page against a big database (and/or analyse its content) and then block it if it’s full of horse porn? Something that doesn’t rely on site builders rating and classifying their own sites?

Does such a thing exist? The closest equivalent I can find is the ICRA content rating system and the ICRAplus filter, but that’s a Windows-only thing. I’m thinking more of a cross between Firefox’s anti-phishing filter and Google SafeSearch. I’m deliberately discounting the various family-friendly software programs out there, because as far as I know they have their own, separate databases: I reckon that the most effective database would be a big one that everybody uses.

31 thoughts on “Save the children (from porn)

  1. Stephen says:

    This is an issue that many Orthodox Jewish parents and rabbis face: since Jewish notions of modesty preclude bare shoulders, never mind semi-nudity, much of the television programming is deemed unsuitable, and many Orthodox households do not have one. But since computers are more necessary than televisions, almost everyone has one. How to control it? Technology is seen as a help but can never be relied on completely. Some basic and obvious precautions that are taken include:

    * Don’t let kids have a computer in their room. Have the computer in the lounge or kitchen, where the screen is easily visible to others.

    * Limit the time spent on the computer, and make sure that time coincides with maximum availability of adult oversight.

    * Teach the children to use the computer as a tool. Get them to articulate a goal for their use, such as completing a homework assignment: don’t allow aimless browsing for its own sake.

    Sure, it’s not as easy as wishing for a flawless tech solution, but I guess the bottom line is that if you want to nurture your children, face the fact that it’s going to take time and effort. There is no foolproof machine that can do the job of a parent, but then if there was, wouldn’t you feel a bit redundant?

  2. mupwangle says:

    This stuff is all available already. I set up an internet cafe in esure and we used Zonealarm’s content filtering system. It checks every address against a list and blocks it based on set criteria. You could limit everything to degree like block porn but allow lingerie shopping for example. It was very, very good. If a site is not rated then it is blocked but you could click on a link on the block message to ask that it be reviewed. I found that there were very few false positives and was pretty happy with it. I can’t remember the ratings system that was used but it was so much more comprehensive than the built-in IE one. I’ll try and find it.

  3. Gary says:

    There is no foolproof machine that can do the job of a parent, but then if there was, wouldn’t you feel a bit redundant?

    Well it’s hypothetical for me, but… I suspect not :)

    BTW Stephen, on the subject of Jewishness – have you read Beware of God by Shalom Auslander (great pen name, eh?). Fantastically funny short stories where God tools around as a hitman, a man’s faith is questioned when he gets to heaven and discovers God is a big chicken, that sort of thing. Utterly, utterly wonderful, even if some of the references went right over my head.

    David – yeah, ZoneAlarm’s filtering is good but again, it’s not cross-platform.

  4. Tony Kiernan says:

    Or we could try and educate our children that the human body is a beautiful thing and not anything to be ashamed of. And, that there’s nothing sordid or seedy about sex – even if some people like it better that way. society would be a lot better if we weren’t all so hung up.

    Of course, we didn’t have computers or pallystations when I was a kid. We went out and played down the woods. That’s where we go our porn.

    Well seeing I’m not a parent, eh?

  5. Gary says:

    And, that there’s nothing sordid or seedy about sex

    I agree with you to a point, and that point’s where porn moves from straightforward sex to something nastier. Personally I reckon anything between consenting adults is fair enough, but that doesn’t mean I’d want kids to be able to access some of the more extreme, unpleasant or flat-out misogynist stuff that’s out there.

  6. Squander Two says:

    > Or we could try and educate our children that the human body is a beautiful thing and not anything to be ashamed of.

    Quite a good idea, possibly, but doesn’t cover a lot of the weird and sometimes extremely violent things people do to each other and to animals in front of cameras that even quite a liberal parent wouldn’t want their kids looking at.

    Also, there’s a fair bit of anecdotal evidence that kids who get this sexually liberated upbringing end up extremely resentful about it. See comments by Frank Zappa’s kids.

    I heard that there’s software that blocks sites based on the proportion of flesh-coloured pixels. I have no idea whether it’s any good, but it would have the advantage of not requiring a database.

  7. mupwangle says:

    >>David – yeah, ZoneAlarm’s filtering is good but again, it’s not cross-platform.

    I know – but the lists are already there and the technology is already there – it is extremely easy to use and regulate – but there is an unwillingness to actually do it.

  8. Gary says:

    Keeping strictly within the bounds of *legal* pornography, the problem is often the attitude rather than the sexual acts. I’ve said before that I find the attitudes of lad-mags rather disturbing, but online porn is often much nastier even when everyone involved is consenting and staying within the law. Adults will look at it and realise it’s all fantasy, but would kids?

    Back to the original post for a sec: I don’t really have a point here, but I wonder whether there’s an opportunity for a firm such as Google to get lots of goodwill by giving parents a simple, effective and free way to stop the kids surfing for smut. It could be extensible so people with particular religious, political or whatever views could then subscribe to additional filters from third parties, but the core product would have to be independent of all that.

  9. Stephen says:

    >Or we could try and educate our children that the human body is a beautiful thing and not anything to be ashamed of.

    Of course we should. But that has nothing to do with pornography, which is about causing sexual arousal, not appreciating beauty for its own sake. And there are problems with focusing on the body rather than the mind or the spirit: the body is not capable of much improvement if it has the misfortune to start out less than beautiful, so that if we aim to teach our children to strive for growth, it’s not a very useful object lesson; it becomes less beautiful as time goes on, which could be a hint that it should become less important to us as we grow and hopefully mature; and the body is rooted in materialism. So it’s not a question of teaching shame: it’s a question of teaching the difference between the material and the spiritual.

    >And, that there’s nothing sordid or seedy about sex

    There is nothing sordid or seedy about sex in an exclusive committed relationship, where it is an essential tool to enhance that relationship and move it to another level – infuse it with something of the divine, even. But that is a completely private and exclusive thing: without either of those things, it does become sordid, degrading and seedy.

  10. mupwangle says:

    >>without either of those things, it does become sordid, degrading and seedy.

    That just happens to be a value judgement based on your own beliefs. There are plenty of people who believe that sex is not sordid, degrading or seedy when neither of those two things are present. Just because you think it sordid does not make it so. However, if you want to have sex with lots of people then people who believe it to be sordid,etc, shouldn’t be forced to watch. That’s just being considerate.

    There is far too much porn of varying degree available without any sort of age verification and I reckon that companies like microsoft, google et al would have a major PR coup if they could create a mechanism where parental controls could be enforced without centralised censorship so if you want to prevent your kids from watching porn or looking at communist websites then you can but your neighbours can let their kids watch allsorts too. I can’t imagine it being hard to do with existing programs. The IE one works but it is a voluntary code. An independent group could create a list (a bit like the spam lists) by category and you choose which categories you want to deny. If it is dynamic then it would be pretty much perfect.

  11. Stephen says:

    Hi Gary, I haven’t read Auslander; I did a bit of Googling, and am a bit put off by all the glowing praise from people and newspapers that I have little respect for. I am sure he is sincere in his beliefs but I can’t help wondering if the praise is due more to people projecting their anti-religious feelings into it. In an interview he says that blind faith is easy, and tries to take on the mantle of the brave dissident. but how hard is it to reject faith in the current age? It actually takes more courage to keep the laws that everyone else (he included) says is stupid and irrelevant. It’s kind of like these “Independent Jewish Voices” who try to say they are being so dissident – by falling into line with the rest of the anti-Israel movement. Yawn. There have always been Jews like that. There were Hellenist Jews who abandoned Judaism to join the Greek culture when that was dominant. There was a Jew called Saul/Paul who “adapted” Judaism to fit in with the dominant Roman culture. But the fact that there are any Jews left today is due to the true dissidents, the Jews who resisted the pressure to fit in with the culture of the day and its fashions of thought, and stay true to the faith of their ancestors. And if, please G-d, there are any Jews in the future, it will not be due to people like Auslander.

  12. Gary says:

    I reckon that companies like microsoft, google et al would have a major PR coup if they could create a mechanism where parental controls could be enforced without centralised censorship

    I think so too. Vista’s parental controls are excellent where stuff is rated, but a browser button that made the net kid-friendly would be better still.

  13. Squander Two says:

    > That just happens to be a value judgement based on your own beliefs.

    Well, yeah. What on Earth else would you teach to your kids? Values based on beliefs that are anathema to you?

  14. Stephen says:

    >That just happens to be a value judgement based on your own beliefs.

    I don’t happen to think that “value judgment” is a dirty word: values are the only things that separate us from animals. And everyone bases their judgments on their beliefs. The question is whether the belief is well-founded or not. And I would suggest that anyone who honestly believes that engaging in casual sex is a meaningful activity that results in increased happiness and self-esteem is lacking a fair bit of self-insight or is in major denial.

    >However, if you want to have sex with lots of people then people who believe it to be sordid,etc, shouldn’t be forced to watch. That’s just being considerate.

    Of course adults should be free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t harm others. But the original context of this debate was children. I think it’s fairly clear that children who are exposed to sexuality before they can understand it and deal with are severely damaged emotionally as a result. Just as we don’t stop adults from drinking or smoking to excess, but try to teach children not to be so self-destructive, so we should protect children from being damaged by pornography or by values that are excessively focused on appearance and shallowness. I suppose the debate around size zero models and anorexia fits in here as well.

  15. Gary says:

    I am sure he is sincere in his beliefs but I can’t help wondering if the praise is due more to people projecting their anti-religious feelings into it.

    I don’t think that was the case in the one review I did read (observer, maybe?) and it’s not something I got from (or brought to) the book itself. I thought it was playful and affectionate, although of course i’m coming from an outsider perspective.

    But that is a completely private and exclusive thing: without either of those things, it does become sordid, degrading and seedy.

    We’re in danger of heading down a debating cul-de-sac, I think. Irrespective of your views on sex, the fact is that pornography exists and tech is making it more easily and widely available and that most parents, irrespective of their attitudes to sex, would rather their kids weren’t looking at really nasty stuff. Left unattended curious teenagers will find it, and even if you don’t go looking for it it’s increasingly turning up anyway thanks to unscrupulous site owners and our very good friends the Evil Internet Spammers.

    I think at the moment there are basically three solutions: permanent supervision (although I’m still not convinced that’s workable with bad-tempered teenagers); parental controls to block access altogether/by time or limit it to specific sites only; or third-party filtering, either in the form of paid-for software or a router with built-in filtering. I guess I’m wondering out loud if there’s a better option.

  16. mupwangle says:

    >>Well, yeah. What on Earth else would you teach to your kids?

    I didn’t say that it was wrong to pass those values on to your kids if that happens to be your belief. Stephen said that sex is sordid, degrading and seedy if it isn’t private and exclusive and that people who enjoy casual sex are misguided. That is his belief and he is entitled to believe it and entitled to teach his children the same. Doesn’t make it necessarily true though, does it?

    >>I think it’s fairly clear that children who are exposed to sexuality before they can understand it and deal with are severely damaged emotionally as a result.

    I’m not sure that it is particularly clear. I’ve heard various horror stories about “progressive” parents (usually celebrities in the 70s) and how their kids grew up, but to be honest I reckon that I was a bit damaged by it never being mentioned in a particularly open way – either embarrassed parents, giggling schoolfriends or teachers talking about the mechanics and not the emotions. I always found the idea of sex to be extremely intimidating and to this day I’m still not particularly comfortable discussing it. I don’t think that’s healthy. Obviously I don’t agree that teens should be looking at videos of people shagging ducks but I think there is a middle ground somewhere.

  17. Squander Two says:

    > our very good friends the Evil Internet Spammers.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the state can do against spammers, who tend to be operating from outside the state’s jurisdiction. I’m wondering: if a French firm flew a squad of unmanned airships over Britain projecting adverts for Marlboro at all the citizenry, would that be a major enough breach of advertising law that the British Government would have diplomatic word with the French Government about either extradition or getting those responsible arrested under French law? I think they might. And isn’t spamming essentially the same?

    I mean, if a British firm had a policy of giving sexually explicit material to Russian kids, what would Putin say to Blair? Nothing at all? Seems unlikely.

  18. mupwangle says:

    >> I guess I’m wondering out loud if there’s a better option.

    I think that there is a fair amount of ignorance from a lot of parents as to the degree of proliferation of porn on the net. There are a large number of parents who are still very naive about the net. They know about viruses and spyware (from the papers) and they know that there are super-secret paedo rings and stuff but they don’t really understand the need to filter. They would be shocked if they realised what their kids could access. The increasing tech-savviness of the kids makes it much easier to hide – even if the parents knew where to look. I think that when you first get a windows machine it should ask you what and who is using it and automatically install a default set of filters on it if you tell it you’ve got kids. If you want your kids to see the net in all its dubious glory then you should be easily able to do it but you would have to make that decision rather than abdicate responsibility.

    On a similar note – I think you could sort the game rating thing out too. The parents can set a pin number and the game asks you for the pin number for an mature game with a quick description of the content. It never asks again for that game. It would mean that a kid could only play the game after the parent is specifically asked if they are OK with the content. Would probably get rid of all the “video games made my kids evil” lawsuits.

  19. Gary says:

    On a similar note – I think you could sort the game rating thing out too.

    That’s what Vista does. It’s a good idea, not least because you can block unrated games too or limit the time spent on gaming.

  20. mupwangle says:

    >>That’s what Vista does.

    No games consoles do it by default and I doubt vista does either. If it is default behaviour then you can argue that the parent is consenting to allow the kids to look at filth/violence/etc by disabling it. Puts the onus back on the parent rather than the retailer or publisher.

  21. Stephen says:

    >>>I think it’s fairly clear that children who are exposed to sexuality before they can understand it and deal with are severely damaged emotionally as a result.

    I’m not sure that it is particularly clear. I’ve heard various horror stories about “progressive” parents (usually celebrities in the 70s) and how their kids grew up, but to be honest I reckon that I was a bit damaged by it never being mentioned in a particularly open way – either embarrassed parents, giggling schoolfriends or teachers talking about the mechanics and not the emotions. I always found the idea of sex to be extremely intimidating and to this day I’m still not particularly comfortable discussing it. I don’t think that’s healthy.

    OK, what I meant was, exposed to the powerful emotions that sexuality can unleash in adults, without being able to understand them. This is a very disturbing experience, and it makes the child feel afraid, and inadequate. I suppose what you are talking about is the same thing on a less damaging scale: so that instead of being exposed to the raw emotion of a child molestor, or of men watching a stripper or pornography, you were exposed to the second-hand emotions of embarrassment or distance, and this has caused you to feel uncomfortable about it. I’m not sure the solution would have been to expose you to pornography.

    Also, it’s interesting that you are uncomfortable talking about sex, yet clearly feel that you ought to be comfortable, and ought to think that casual sex is fine. That too is just another belief or value judgment, one prevalent in our age, yet not a particularly logical one. Why should you feel comfortable discussing sex with all and sundry? The only person who you should feel comfortable discussing sex with is your wife, because you are the only two people who really need concern themselves about it: if you are happy together, that’s all that matters.

    Jewish law is clear that sex in marriage is to be highly valued, and protected, if it is to keep its holy status. Far from the stereotype of sexually repressed religious people, the Talmud is very forthright, even graphic, in describing the desired modes of sexual congress (for example, it is desirable that there be no clothing on either partner, to maximise bodily contact), and it is also very practical (thousands of years before feminism, there is a detailed discussion of how often a man is obligated to have sex with his wife, depending on how physically demanding his work is- an implicit recognition that women have a right to have and enjoy sex). But it is all to be kept completely private and within marriage. It’s hard to see how current “permissive” ideas have made anyone happier (divorce rates continue to climb, and many don’t even bother to try to get married any more) so I tend to think that just maybe, the ideas that have survived for thousands of years deserve some consideration.

  22. Squander Two says:

    The problem was AIDS. All of a sudden, it became vitally important that sex could be discussed in public without embarrassment so that the message could be spread about STD prevention. And that’s fair enough. Unfortunately, most people seem to have decided that there’s no difference between it being sensible and unembarrassing to discuss sex in general and it being compulsory to tell everyone you meet all about your sex life.

    Interesting, now I come to think of it, that the sexual revolution occurred twenty years earlier for actual behavior than it did for talking about it. You’d think it’d be the other way round.

  23. mupwangle says:

    >>OK, what I meant was, exposed to the powerful emotions that sexuality can unleash in adults, without being able to understand them.

    Fair nuff.

    >>Also, it’s interesting that you are uncomfortable talking about sex, yet clearly feel that you ought to be comfortable, and ought to think that casual sex is fine.

    I think that not being able to talk about sex is in itself quite destructive. I don’t necessarily mean proclaiming to the pub that you have a large penis or discussing your sex life in all its rather gooey detail, but being generally uncomfortable about discussing sex, whoever it may be, can cause issues in your relationship in that if something is an issue then it just festers and eventually comes out in some sort of emotional ketchup burst. There is a difference between choosing not to discuss sex for privacy and actually finding it next to impossible, irrespective of whether you’re discussing it with a stranger, a friend, family, a doctor or your partner. take something like erectile dysfunction, for example. This is extremely common, often completely psychological but something that men find very difficult to talk about as it is only ever talked about in locker-room type giggling conversations. It isn’t discussed so it tends to get worse which can cause severe damage to any relationship. If the culture wasn’t so nudge-nudge wink-wink then people might find it easier to talk about what’s going on.

    >>and ought to think that casual sex is fine.

    I do think it’s fine as long as there is nobody being lied to. Unfortunately, as with anything, there are people that can do it without having problems and be perfectly happy and there are those who can’t and end up damaged and there are those who are just there to fuck people over (quite literally. Actually its a bit like ebay). It isn’t something that I’ve ever really done but if someone else wants to do it then fine, but I agree that I don’t necessarily want to know all the ins and outs (pardon the pun)

    >>It’s hard to see how current “permissive” ideas have made anyone happier (divorce rates continue to climb, and many don’t even bother to try to get married any more) so I tend to think that just maybe, the ideas that have survived for thousands of years deserve some consideration.

    I’m not convinced that the argument that the increase in divorce rates is necessarily an indicator of people’s happiness. In the past it was frowned upon for someone to divorce so couples tended to stay together but it doesn’t mean that they were particularly happy about it. To be honest I would’ve thought that people were probably happier in relationships on average nowadays as fewer unhappy marraiges continue. A lot of folks aren’t getting married as there are less reasons to become married. The laws are changing slowly to give common-law couples the same rights, there are no tax breaks and many people just don’t subscribe to religion any more. An idea that has survived for many years as part of religious doctrine doesn’t mean that it deserves any more consideration as often these things are not really questioned. In any case that is a completely different argument.

    Don’t get me wrong – if we ever have kids I’d wouldn’t want them to be looking at porn either.

    >>We’re in danger of heading down a debating cul-de-sac, I think.

    I think we probably are. I don’t think we’re ever going to agree on this, and since it’s a Friday night, I’m off down the pub to be surrounded by hormone-fuelled teenagers all trying to get laid. I feel old. :-D

  24. Gary says:

    I don’t necessarily mean proclaiming to the pub that you have a large penis or discussing your sex life in all its rather gooey detail

    God, I hate that. The reaction when I proclaim to the pub that I have a large penis, I mean.

    I’m here till Sunday! Try the veal!

    I don’t understand people who feel the need to share every last detail of their sex lives. Or rather, I do understand it but I don’t want to hear it. One chap I used to know would go into great detail about his conquests, and it used to really annoy me – not least because it demonstrated an utter lack of respect for the women generous enough to sleep with him, which was particularly unfair as he was ugly as sin and should have been bloody grateful for any attention rather than dismissive of his erstwhile partners…

    On the other hand:
    If the culture wasn’t so nudge-nudge wink-wink then people might find it easier to talk about what’s going on.

    Oh, I agree. As you know I’m an avid reader of women’s magazines in general and their problem pages in particular, and the level of ignorance and misinformation you find in them is really depressing. It’s even worse online: check out any health or lifestyle-related site with bulletin boards on relationship/sex topics and you’ll see all kinds of hang-ups, fears and anxieties – whether it’s “nice girls don’t do anything” or “all the magazines say I should be shagging 300 people a week, and I’m not. What’s wrong with me?”

    I think our culture’s hyper-sexualised and that’s generally a bad thing, but at the same time I do think you can be too prurient. Particularly with teenagers: I don’t have a hyperlink handy but if I recall correctly the US states with the most hardline attitudes about sex education (“Don’t do anything, with anyone, ever, or you’ll go to the burny place”) have the highest rates of teen STDs. So I guess the hardliners are right, in a way: it’s just that the burny place the teenagers are experiencing is from an STD in their pants rather than in the core of the Earth :)

  25. Gary says:

    No games consoles do it by default and I doubt vista does either.

    You’re right, but I think that’s a good thing: most tech buyers are grown-ups, and I’d be annoyed if I was locked out of my content by default – particularly if the system used a patchy ratings scheme and blocked unrated content, so any video, game, ripped audio or whatever that preceded/didn’t use the ratings scheme would be locked out. Mind you, it’d be a good idea to have the parental rating/control/whatever as a key part of the system setup with any new console, computer or OS – a one-click skip if you don’t want to use it.

  26. tm says:

    >>We’re in danger of heading down a debating cul-de-sac, I think.

    &

    >>Also, it’s interesting that you are uncomfortable talking about sex, yet clearly feel that you ought to be comfortable, and ought to think that casual sex is fine.

    Well, I don’t want to drag that point on against everyones wishes, but the thing about that statement is, actually there are three issues in it.

    1. being comfortable talking about sex in general.
    2. knowing when to stop talking about something because you’ve just stepped into embarrassing territory.
    3. Thinking casual sex is ok.

    So in reverse order –
    3. As stephen says is a personal judgement – he reaches one conculsion, david reahces another, I porbably have a similar view to david, but with a subltlly different take on it. We can argue till we’re green and we’ll never get clsoe to agreeing.

    2 – is a difficult call for all of us especially since when to stop probably varies with whoever you’re talking to. However what we’re all really against is those pople who either:

    a. have made a judgement that ‘sharing everything is for the better’. I hate that because that’s patently not true and it’s fundamentally dishonest – no one really shares *everything* – even if they try too.

    or

    b. have a complete lack of self awareness about how they look in a given situation. These people don’t stop because they don’t realise how embarrassing it is – after all if you don’t notice your own embarrassment how will you notice anyone elses? These people are basically your typical really, really, bad pop idol contestant, but they just never realised how “good” they are at singing and dancing.

    or

    c. the killer – both a and b. Make you’re excuses and leave, it’s all that you can do…

    or

    d. well, you do just get the odd arsewhole who really believes they have a massive knob and wants to share it with the world.

    1. Is the key one isn’t it? And I’m not sure I can really say anything more that what other people have said but I’m fairly certain that having got to now being really quite repressed about sex, I’d have preferred to be less embarrassed. But I really don’t know if things would have turned out any better overall.

    >most tech buyers are grown-ups,

    the average age of a computer game buyer in the UK was 27 two years ago, and rises with each year that Gary, David, me, and our mate Steven put on the clock, since we seem to account for approximately 50% of national sales as far as I can tell…

    Still since they cost 40-50 bucks a shot new, what do you expect? ;-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *