Saturday, May 7, 2011

BLOCKED! And Morally Outraged

So, I'm at a writers' conference, pitching my next book idea (God and Gays) to agents, since I think it deserves a wider audience than I'd get from an academic publisher (and since my target audience isn't academics in any event). I'm having some downtime between sessions, and so I'm here in the "business center" where they have a couple of complementary computers for guest use.

I type in my blog's URL and...I'm blocked. A message comes up saying that access to the site is denied because certain key words were identified in the blog that suggested "imappropriate content." It even specified WHAT those key words were--a phrase in an earlier blog post about the Texas House vote. I'd tell you what the phrase is, but then I'm afraid my efforts at circumnavigation to get to this posting page may somehow be blocked, and I won't be able to post this. So I'll paraphrase as only an academic can: I was referencing a statistic about the relative rate of self-destructive behavior in a certain minority group.

And this reference was sufficient to make it impossible to access my blog directly from this computer. And since almost the very same words appear on the website for the Travis Project (an organization that helps the targeted group to overcome their self-destructive impulses), this also means that a teenage member of the minority group in question who is staying in this hotel, who is having the kinds of thoughts that I dare not mention directly and is therefore at risk of death, and who decides to use a computer that his parents can't check up on, thinking this may be his chance to find out who he can reach out to...well, you get the idea.

Why in the world would THESE precise key words--words which would block the aforementioned teen from access to a LIFE LINE--be included in a set of key words that trigger a computer program to BLOCK someone's access to the selected web page. It's as if the hotel manager decided...well, I won't speculate.

But I'm furious.


  1. Did some further experimenting--and while I was able to open the Trevor Project main site (Trevor Project is gay suicide prevention organization), the program blocked access to the facts & statistics page. The key phrase it indicated as the reason mention gay teens and their risk for being the victims of sexual assault. I suspect what is responsible is the close juxtaposition of TWO key words (not "gay" and "suicide," but "teens" and "sexual"--in the case of my blog, the second term being imbedded in the term "heterosexual"). And this means the program is set to prevent content that really IS inappropriate--it's just overactive. Not sure how to fix this, since an UNDERACTIVE filter would also be dangerous. But my moral outrage has died down and I'm no longer going to interrupt my conference attending to track down hotel managers, etc.

    But I think it is an interesting question how one balances the desire to prevent predators from accessing inappropriate content with the interest in NOT blocking those who may urgently need information of the sort that, say, the Trevor Project has to offer.

    Thoughts on this are welcome--but as soon as this comment is posted, I will no longer be able to access this post from the hotel computer (for reasons mentioned), so don't expect further comments from me today.

  2. Eric,

    I would assume that these public computers are set to block sites to prevent children from accessing them (you mention predators).

    Depending how these filters are set up, it might be possible for the hotel management to specify exceptions so that the site you mention (and your blog of course) could stay available. It might be worth speaking with the management if you feel strongly that access to these sites is crucial.

    There might be ways around the blocking filters, possibly by using another browser (perhaps from a USB device) or by going through redirecting sites – I am not familiar with this but I know these things are out there.

    I also assume that there is no restriction if you hook your own computer to the hotel network.

  3. You can have blacklists but you can also have whitelists. Whitelists override the blacklist. For example, there is a word commonly considered to be offensive which some consider to be synonymous with female genitals which schools typically block, but there's also an English town named Scu*thorpe which is on whitelists to ensure students in Yorkshire can study geography without fear of being labelled sexually inappropriate.

  4. Hi Eric,

    Any parental control software has its problems. Some require an override for a web page with the word "Nazi" regardless if you're doing legitimate WW2 research. However, I admit that never heard of parental control software in a business center.

  5. Actually they may be using a system like Open DNS which works through the wireless. I use it at home since I have teenagers with all kinds of devices, but a lot of public buildings use it too.

    And yes, those blocking services err on the side of being too protective, for my taste. I've whitelisted several sites for our family that the blocker considered inappropriate and that my husband and I consider harmless or even educational.

    James, I think business centers use those so they don't get complaints about what is popping up on people's screens in the lobby. It's amazing what people choose to watch on their laptops in public.

    -- Anna