Should hospitals censor internet access?

Most of the censorship stories you hear on the news involve public libraries, but right now I’m writing this from a hospital, which has free wi-fi. Someone providing a service like this has latitude to do pretty much as they please, including censorship, but is it a good idea?

The system here evidently consists of a monitor observing every HTTP access, either forwarding it on or bouncing to another server, one that seems to be down. That second server, referred to only by numeric IP, has yet to ever actually respond, so trying to load any page with a blocked site requres a lengthy timeout of about two minutes before landing on a browser error page with a URL something like this:

http://10.226.37.60:9014/actionpage?basictype=block&epochseconds=1157135546&
requestedurl=http%3A%2F%2Fbriefcase.yahoo.com%2F&categorylist=170&
categorydescriptionlist=Personal%20Network%20Storage&useripaddress=172.26.0.95&
username=&actiontaken=block&actionreason=by-category&actionreasondata=170&
replayhash=oBvk1MZaKDcrs6zo2FyPDg%3D%3D

Let’s take a look at what kind of sites this inane system prevents hospital visotors from viewing directly:

  • flickr.com (“Personal Pages”) — because honestly, who in a maternity ward would ever need to upload pictures of something?
  • 360.yahoo.com (“Dating&Personal”) — because who in a maternity ward would consider posting to a blog?
  • my.yahoo.com as a (“Portal Site”) — because who, away from home for a few days, might want to check up on news of the world around them?
  • thinkbabynames.com (“Personal Pages”) — thankfully, this dangerous and immoral content too has been shielded from the eyes of maternity ward visitors.

At some point, somebody must have pointed out a flaw in their system–that any named site can also be viewed through a numeric IP. Instead of actually thinking about the problem, they also banned all numeric IPs, even for sites that would otherwise work.
The upside to retarded filtering is that it’s easy to get around. Techniques that work here include using a search engine cached page, Coral Cache (.nyud.net:8080), SSH tunneling, VPN, and adding a new entry to hosts to access the same site under a different name. The access is so slow, however (hmm… in a way another form of censorship) that the strain of the additional measures often leads to timeouts and various other errors.
Fortunately, the filtermasters haven’t caught on to dubinko.info yet, thus allowing this post to appear. I hear that site is pretty subversive.

What’s the net?

  1. It’s obvious their list of sites to filter is woefully generic, not at all adjusted to the environment in which people will be actually using the system. And still, I’d wager they’re paying someone fistfuls of cash to keep updating the generic list.
  2. I can imagine there are a few sites on the internets that wouldn’t be appropriate in this environment.  The majority of well-adjusted adults are perfectly capable of choosing not to visit those sites.
  3. In cases where supervision is needed, it is effective on a one-on-one basis, often parent-to-child. Witness how many ways there are to easily bypass the filters: software, particularly bad software, isn’t clever enough to replace human judgement.
  4. Yay for the mobile web, which allowed me to upload my pictures anyway.

-m

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