The New York State Thruway has put wireless Internet access into all their rest areas. This came in handy recently when my partner and I had to go back to his childhood home to be with his family as his father was dying. There was — until just a few days ago — no Internet access at his parents’ home, and so we went in search of WiFi spots when we could.
The Thruway WiFi was very useful when, on our drive up to his family’s home, we were called and asked to send an e-mail to family in the Netherlands with the day’s update on his father’s condition. It was useful when we were on our way to pick up one of Will’s nephews from the airport in Rochester and, while stopped at a rest area for a cup of coffee, we got a call saying his flight had been delayed. We stayed at the rest area for a while checking email, and checking blogs. And that’s when I discovered that this blog is “NSFT” (Not Safe for the Thruway). I was happily clicking through email messages and found some comments in need of moderation. When I clicked on the link to the comment moderation page, I got the following message:
“This site has been blocked due to content.”
I tried again. After all, the content on this blog is not obscene. Sure, the words “sex” and “public” are in the title, but it contains no very explicit material. Again I saw:
“This site has been blocked due to content.”
I was baffled. I tried some sites that I know are much more explicit (note: if explicit writing or naked pictures bother you, don’t follow these links). I tried Chelsea Girl’s Pretty Dumb Things, one of my favorite sites for smart explicit writing about sex. Her current post was about having anal sex with her boyfriend. (This is something she writes about with some frequency, great style, explicit detail, and much intensity.)
I tried Deviant Delyte’s DeviantsLair for photos that outraged a small but vocal number of community members in her small Oklahoma town, and ultimately resulted in her husband (the chief of police) and other town officials resigning their positions.
Hoping to find out more about the filtering software I picked up the Thruway Authority’s brochure promoting their WiFi service. Not much help. All it said was:
“The Authority reserves the right to filter content that may be inappropriate for the general viewing public at a (Thruway) Travel Plaza.”
Could the content on Sex in the Public Square be more “inappropriate for the general viewing public at a (Thruway) Travel Plaza” than the content on DeviantsLair or Pretty Dumb Things? I can’t imagine so. I’m sure this is the result of filtering software that casts a very wide net with very large holes. It apparently filters key words in site names and URLs rather than screening the words on the page.
Let me put aside for a moment my perennial complaint that fast food — ubiquitous at (Thruway) Travel Plazas — is more harmful to the general public than is sexually explicit material. We can debate what is or is not “inappropriate for the general viewing public at a (Thruway) Travel Plaza,” and we can debate whether or not public utilities ought to be filtering at all, but I cannot dispute that I agreed to the filtering when I accepted the terms of service. Still, if they’re asserting this as a “right,” I’d say they are not exercising their right very effectively.
In any case, we moved on. I found that I had unfettered access to my blog at the local Subway sub shop. I am not a fast-food fan, as you might have guessed by my statement above, but they had free WiFi and, better yet, did not filter sites. I was able to check in on my blog, and was happy to see a new comment or two and saddened that I did not have time to write any new posts.
Another place that had wireless access was the Valvoline Instant Oil Change spot we dropped in to on our way to the hospital one morning. (If you are getting a sense by now that I am rather dependent on my Internet connectivity, you are perceiving the situation accurately!) I checked my email (all four accounts!) and then tried to check my blog. No luck! Turns out the VIOC used a filtering software and this blog was blocked as “Pornography.” I hope their oil filters are more effective than their web content filters. There is nothing pornographic on this blog, though it has the words “sex” and “public” in the title and in the URL. Interestingly, just as at the (Thruway) Travel Plaza, I checked a few erotica blogs I read and none were blocked.
I’m especially interested in this because I have in the past recommended parental controls on web browsers as a way of helping parents keep their children from seeing material that they — the parents — don’t want them — the children — to see. I’ve known, abstractly, that these “parental controls” and filters have weaknesses, but I hadn’t realized quite how weak they could be.
I’m very interested in your stories about using such filters or blocks or parental controls. Have you found them useful? Have you found that they screen out too much? Please tell me about your experiences in the comments section below.
Oh, and by the way, I sent an email to the Thruway’s customer service department asking about their filtering software and its settings. I’ll let you know what I find out!