Services & Software

Commentary: Healthy debate on Net filters

The battle over filtering Internet content, both in the public sphere and within enterprises, is one that needs to be fought.

By Bill Gassman, Gartner Analyst

The battle over filtering Internet content, both in the public sphere and within enterprises, is one that needs to be fought.

The debate will take years to play out, but as it does, people in the United States should remind themselves that this kind of public controversy is preferable to the alternative. In an authoritarian country, laws or proposed laws restricting Internet content are not subject to public discussion.

Filtering is generally effective at doing what it was designed to do, block access to certain categories of information, though that often means keeping Internet users from some worthwhile, if controversial, content. Some filtering software, such as that produced by N2H2, has gotten better at recognizing nuances in touchy areas such as medical terminology. But ultimately, information is like water flowing downhill: It will eventually overcome whatever obstacles are placed in its path.

Still, even the most zealous free-speech advocate has to admit that there's bad stuff on the Internet and that parents have a legitimate interest in trying to shield their children from certain kinds of content. Public libraries, which are increasingly becoming an Internet access point for people of all ages, must navigate between their traditional role of providing unfettered access to information and protecting children--or adults who simply don't want to see it--from inappropriate material.

Similarly, businesses must create policies that guard against Internet abuse by employees without unduly infringing on personal privacy or impeding legitimate Internet use. Worker abuse of Internet privileges is a genuine, if not pervasive, concern for employers. Gartner estimates that about 5 percent of enterprise workers engage in inappropriate online behavior at the office, ranging from simple "cyberloafing" to using company Internet access to hold down a second job.

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Filters face free-speech test
Gartner believes that in both libraries and businesses, effective solutions will have to find a balance among competing interests. A best practice for public libraries will be to adopt a "private areas" approach to Internet access that creates areas with unfiltered terminals for adults and areas with filtered terminals for children and those who might be offended by unfiltered content. Another compromise available to protect public-space users is so-called "soft" filtering, which notifies users that content may be offensive but allows them to click through. This can keep self-policing adults from exposure to unwanted material, though it obviously does little to stop intrepid children. In all cases, a central point of debate will be on who gets to choose the definitions of "offensive" or "inappropriate."

Many businesses will eventually adopt filtering practices of one kind of another, but they should avoid doing so in such a heavy-handed way that would alienate employees who do not abuse their Internet privileges. Companies that have cracked down on Web use may experience a backlash in which their employees no longer are browsing the Web during their lunch breaks, but instead are taking 90-minute lunch "hours" and hanging out in the halls. As more enterprises install software to monitor employee Web usage, they must be prepared to address valid worker concerns about privacy and trust.

(For related commentary on e-mail and Internet monitoring, see registration required.)

Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.