TSA and filtered internet access

Several people reported today that the TSA has started filtering its employees’ access to the Internet, including access to sites featuring “controversial opinions”.

Many folks were quick to denounce this as censorship, demonstrating their lack of understanding of how web filtering works. Lots of comments were posted by readers, asking things like “Who decides what’s controversial?” “Will Fox News be blocked while MSNBC is permitted?” and other questions that, similarly, reflected a general misunderstanding of how web filtering software works.

I’d like to make several points about the TSA’s decision. I find myself in the bizarre position of defending an IT decision by an organization with which I disagree on almost every other point.

1) A significant percentage of businesses, and most government agencies, monitor, track, and restrict access to the Internet. This is not a curtailment of your rights. On the contrary, they are paying you to work for them, and every moment you spend at work reading Facebook could very well be considered theft of company resources.

2) When you install web filtering software, you’re given a list of checkboxes describing categories of web content. One of them might be something like “Controversial Opinions”, and will likely contain such things as hate sites, sites about gay and lesbian rights, sites about abortion, and sites about vegetarianism. These sites are categorized as such simply because viewing these sites in the work place can result in disruptive arguments among employees, or simply because the conversations that result are detrimental to productivity.

3) As for the question “Who Decides?!?!?” that keeps getting asked, the answer is pretty darned simple. It’s not the TSA. It’s not the government. It’s not President Obama or his cabinet. It’s college students, getting paid minimum wage, at Universities around the country, who look at websites, and categorize them. No conspiracy exists here. They are given criteria by the manufacturers of the web filtering software, and simply categorize according to those criteria. So when the TSA installs software and checks the “Controversial Opinions” checkbox, not only didn’t they decide what’s in there, they don’t even know what’s in there. And what’s in there changes daily, as those college students update the master list of what sites are porn, what sites are hate sites, and what sites are about fluffy bunnies.

So, when I read that the TSA was starting to filter their employees’ web access, my first question was, why are they doing it in 2010, when all other responsible agencies implemented policies like this *at least* five years ago? When I saw the ludicrous articles claiming that this proves that the current government hates dissident opinions, and that this is the first step towards government control of the Internet, I chuckled a little. But when I started realizing the number of people who think that this is a conspiracy to control the Internet, and that the President is in on it, I have to say that I find it profoundly irresponsible for folks like InfoWars.com and their ilk to whip people up into anti-government frenzy based on lies, misinformation, and obfuscation of the plain and readily-available facts.

Get your facts, folks, before you start calling a simple IT policy change, a government conspiracy. You clearly don’t understand how IT decision-making works in the real world of corporate America.