Disclaimer: I work in Google's Policy Team, developing multistakeholder cooperations for internet governance & policy themes, hence I want to point out that all the opinions and ruminations on this blog are mine, not Google's.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

openDNS - seems to be a decent way of content filtering

last night i met someone from www.openDns.com (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDNS). As the name says, they offer a free/open Doman Name resolver and what i thought was quite interesting: they allow for community based (crowdsourced) filtering by categories.

I just signed up for their service to test it. Here is how it works and some reflections:

You select the network you want to have filtered by either choosing one of the categories or doing a custom category filter:

  • High - Protects against all adult-related sites, illegal activity, social networking sites, video sharing sites, and general time-wasters.
  • Moderate - Protects against all adult-related sites and illegal activity.
  • Low -Protects against pornography and phishing.
  • Minimal- Protects against phishing attacks.
  • None - Nothing blocked.
  • Custom - Choose the categories you want to block.

in their category list they have some pretty strange themes to filter like "Educational Institutions", "search engines" as well as really broad ones like "news & media"

once you selected the "evil" content you dont want your children, roomates or workers to see all you have to do is active the filter and no-one in your IP/network will be able to access these pages. In fact you can define custom messages/pages to be displayed for the different blocked categories.

I am not 100% sure how the system works though. I played around with it and e.g. didn't see a reason why weeklygripe.co.uk or even more strange http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ was tagged (to be decided for blocking) as hate & discrimination. In fact i didn't think any of the sites in that category were reasonably tagged.

In their defense it has to be said that from the 5,399,836 sites submitted only 1,034,372 are aproved for blocking right now.

here are some relevant answers from their FAQs

  • What Do I Do If A Domain Is Tagged Incorrectly?
If an undecided domain is tagged incorrectly, vote No.

If a decided domain is tagged incorrectly, go to the domain detail page and click the "Flag for review" link.

Community moderators will review all reports.
  • Who are the moderators?
Moderators are a mix of OpenDNS employees and trusted community members. Moderators are identified throughout the community by a badge .

**And they invite applications to become a moderator from the community.


so here are my 2 cents worth of thoughts about this approach

A) I think the way the decisions about blocking are made should be described clearer (who has the final say?) and a wikipedia like discussion page would also be helpful

B) having that said, i think it is a rather transparent, community driven and therefore commendable approach

C) it would add substantial value if there was a "suggested warning" category -- so say nazi propaganda gets flagged and a warning page is displayed when a user tries to enter, but if s/he descides s/he wants to see the page there is a link to enter


Interestingly Prof. David Casacuberta and myself had envisioned a relatively similar service in our 2007 article "Do we need new rights in Cyberspace? Privacy and the Need for an Internet Bill of Rights ", presented at the GigaNet Symposium 2007 and published in Enrahonar 40/41

Allow me to quote:

"Lets imagine the institution managing the cyber address assignment includes meta-information regarding the content of the information and service provided. This would enable, for example, the classification of content to be only appropriate for mature users as well as the insertion of a informative page advising the user of the quality of the content. This upstream page would also allow for public discourse and collective assessment of content provided at the site. This way there is no enforcement of particular axiological dispositions in the form of restraining the freedom of expression but vulgar and extremist content would be classified and debated."


Lastly i looked and it seems quite easy/possible to "hack" (=circumvent) the openDNS system. You can go to the sites IP directly, or you can use a proxy server.

Also it seems that openDNS finds pretty interesting (value added) services to complement their core functionality. For example you/the admin can define shortcuts to point to urls; so you can define that the word "mail" points to your webmail etc.

I would be interested what you think about their system. For me it is clear that openDNS is operating in a space that is very relevant to internet governance so i would like to invite them to join our efforts and discussions; and if possible come to the IGF so we can work with them "in real life".

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