This Blog “Not Safe for Thruway”

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!


Filed under censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, Travel

19 responses to “This Blog “Not Safe for Thruway”

  1. Alex

    My parents never tried to put a filter on our family computer, probably because they knew I would be able to work around it. The boarding school I went to tried it, but people regularly found sites that weren’t blocked or proxy sites that they could use to circumvent the filter.
    I think that if you set one of these filters up right it would work ok, but it would still only work ok and the first person who knew more about hacking than you who wandered along could get around it. Also many people these days have laptops and wireless internet, which neither the government nor the employer have easy access to block.

  2. elyzabethe

    we had a filter on our Internet at one of my old jobs, at a daily newspaper. It used to filter out just about anything that had the word “breast” or “sex” or anything like that in it, which was particularly frustrating when trying to research (as part of being a reporter there) stories about breast cancer or other health topics, or government legislation pertaining to, well, any number of topics …

  3. I think that examples like yours here–and like my site’s experience with being dropped by Google when they retooled their engines to eliminate unfair practices perpetrated by some adult sites–show exactly how inexactly computer language works. Why would your site be blocked by the NYS Thruway and mine not be? There’s no good reason. Why would my site be affected by Google’s structuring? Not a clue.

    I admit my full lack of knowledge of algorithims (and even how to spell it) and my dearth of knowledge of writing code. Clearly, though, these examples illustrate how inexact–and thus ineffective–content filters can be.

    chelsea g

  4. There are two questions, really, and perhaps they each deserve separate posts. The technical question is about the efficacy of the filters. The philosophical question is about whether or not the Thruway Authority should be filtering content at all, (and more broadly, where should filtering be the rule and where should it not be the rule).

    Alex: If you check back here I’m curious about why you say that wireless internet connections are difficult to block. The specific example in the post is exactly one of filtering applied to a government-sponsored WiFi service.

  5. cynical of me to think this, but i was wondering if your site was blocked because [among other stuff] you have information about sex and birth control aimed specifically at teens.

  6. I can’t help but laugh, because I’m pretty staid, and there’s nothing on this page to curl my hair.

    A few times I’ve been at the public library and had pages on blocked because they contained more than a critical number of “suspicious” words (one such book was on therapeutic options for family of bipolar disorder patients). Perhaps that’s what happened with you. There could be certain magic words that the system is programmed to spot, and your frank writing tone just exceeded the threshold limit.

  7. Alex

    “If you check back here I’m curious about why you say that wireless internet connections are difficult to block. The specific example in the post is exactly one of filtering applied to a government-sponsored WiFi service.”
    I was referring to using a sperate wireless internet provider rather than using a local wireless network. I’m not really sure how to explain this (I’m only an amateur computer nerd) but I’ll try. Sorry if I assume you know less than you really do.
    Most filtering is done on a local server level: the government department, business or school will buy bandwidth and use their own server/s to share it between the networked computers. So this is where they check to see if you’re looking up pages with the word sex in it.
    So the WiFi in the rest stops will be an ADSL or fibre optic connection to a computer somewhere there which then supplies a local wireless network, with a range of between 10 to 100 meters (I think) depending on terrain. However you can get wireless internet where an ISP sets up a long range transmitter from their switch so you can connect directly to the switch without having to go through a local server.
    What this means for my friends who use their laptops to surf the web at work is that they can circumvent the filtering on the local server, but they have to pay an ISP for the privilege.

    “There could be certain magic words that the system is programmed to spot, and your frank writing tone just exceeded the threshold limit.”
    That is probably how they do it; I think it might take too much processing power to have the local server try to decipher the meaning of the page.

    Filtering at a workplace seems fine as you are there to do your job and all, except in elyzabethe’s example. Censoring public access internet however is a harder question. Which is more important: allowing me to check the blogs I read or preventing people being unwillingly exposed to obscene images? Not that someone couldn’t load 100gb of porn on their laptop or just buy a magazine.

  8. I don’t think it’s cynical to suggest that the site could be filtered because of specific topics covered, or because of the way that they’re covered, but if that were the case I’d bet it was the sex offender stuff and not the birth control stuff. But then again, could have been both.

    Kevin, my blog doesn’t curl your hair? How upsetting! Really, though, in response to your suggesting that the site was blocked because of “suspicious” words, I suppose that could be true though I’d be surprised if there were more “suspicious” words on this blog than on, say, Chelsea Girl’s blog. Then again, the posts related to sex offenses might make a difference. I don’t know.

    I’m still waiting on a response from the Thruway Authority, by the way.

  9. Can you access the clustrmaps website? It’s a completely non-offensive site (as you know), but I have seen it blocked random places (like at the Columbus airport)… I think it would be a good litmus test for if the blocking software is being overzealous, or if they are, as you suspect, blocking sites based on their urls.

  10. Mollishka, great question. You reminded me that in fact I was able to access the ClustrMap for SITPS but not SITPS itself. The Clustrmap page for SITPS does have “sexinthepublicsquare” in its URL. At the time I wondered if that meant that the filter was only “looking at” root web sites. But that doesn’t really make sense of course.

    Then again, neither does the outcome of their filtering.

    Still no word from the Thruway Customer Service folks. I may need to try a phone call!

  11. Alex, thank you for the explanation. And your comparison between Internet porn, already-downloaded porn, and paper porn is one I want to follow up.

    Another technical question: If there were, in fact, “magic words” that alone or in combination were the key to being blocked, how would that explain why Pretty Dumb Things was not blocked? Here is a link to the page that was up on the day in question:
    (Note: Don’t follow the link if explicit discussion of anal sex offends you.)

    (Also note: Chelsea G is a friend of mine and of course I don’t want to see her site blocked. I just want to use it as a point of comparison!)

  12. I do agree with you that blocking access to blogs such as yours is a bit on the prudish side, to say the least. And I do support open access to the net.

    But let’s take a longer view of this picture, if we may. What does it say, in the whole scheme of things, that people can access your blog from a location such as Subway, but not from a location such as Valvoline Instant Oil Change?

  13. Alex

    I don’t know how the filter is designed, but it needs some more work if it doesn’t block Pretty Dumb Things but blocks this site. Maybe it just scans the page title?

  14. Here’s a way to try to think about it: if you were trying to write a web filter (granted, whether or not you’d ever actually want to do such a thing is another issue, but bear with me) that screens out “explicit” images, but not text, then how would you go about trying to do it?

  15. I discovered that Google’s web search filter works much better than the Thruway’s filter in terms of screening sexually explicit content. When I set it for “strict filtering” it kept Pretty Dumb Things and Deviant’s Liar both from the top search results (I didn’t go through all the search results) yet it let Sex in the Public Square through. (Searches were for: Sex in the Public Square, Deviant Delyte, and Pretty Dumb Things, without quotation marks). WHen I set it for “no filtering” each blog/web site I was looking for came up first on the search results list.

    Again, I don’t use PDT and DL because I think they should be filtered, but rather because they are more explicit than SITPS.

  16. During power outages, I usually go to my local county library to surf the net, and I’m able to access all three of my blogs, one of which contains explicit accounts of my sex life. That blog has no photos, however. And I live in a pretty conservative area, a red county in a red state.

  17. Bureaucrats only care about one thing: not having to explain a problem to a superior. It’s simply easier to block content than explain why your blog (discussing sex) is allowed through. So they block anything with a risk about it, letting in the harsher stuff because of weaknesses in their filtering software.

  18. somefred

    Ah yes, Censorship In America, ya gotta love it. My sweetie works at City Hall in a nearby medium sized city, and the email there is so censored it becomes silly. As a test, recently I wrote the Mayor as follows:

    “I recently sold my house in Essex County and moved to your beautiful city. I love it here so much, that I want to do my part for the city by offering you 10,000 dollars to refurbish the Little League Field which I understand was lacking the needed funds.”

    And of course, since the word “Essex” contains the word “sex”, the email bounced back as porn, and said it contained “inappropriate words”. So the city didn’t get the donation, and the kids lacking the baseball field had to go back to stealing hubcaps, or surfing the internet for porn, or whatever kids do these days.

    I greatly dislike censorship in all its forms. Would it not be better if some pervert were at home drooling over internet porn, instead of exposing himself to Granny in the park? Would it not be better if another pervert were surfing porn at home instead of following your kids around on their way home from school?

    Oh hell, forget I ever said anything, I’m gonna go watch Law & Order now. Maybe they will show some murdered bodies stuffed in a dumpster. Yeah!

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