David S. Bennahum on Wed, 7 May 1997 23:55:01 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Confessions of a SmutBlocker, from Internet Underground magazine

[Today is just one of those days when the strange bizzaro anecdotes come in.  So what is it like to work "censoring" the net all day long?  Here is an interview on this topic. --db]

 "Internet Content Supervisor," from the May 1997 "Sex" issue of Internet Underground magazine. Reprinted with permission. An excerpt:

Internet Underground magazine
May 1997

Confessions of a SmutBlocker

It's a dirty job -- in every sense of the word -- but
somebody's gotta do it. In order for services that
filter the Internet to work, some employee has to rake
through all that muck on the Web, scouting out every
last topless photo and naughty word. Here at Internet
Underground, preoccupied with putting together our
"Sex issue," we found ourselves wondering: What kind
of a job would that be? What would it pay? And what
would it do to any sane person?

Well, it turns out that the job's called  "Internet
Content Supervisor." The pay? $7 per hour.

The service that employs these smut blockers is N2H2,
an ISP in Seattle which bills itself as "the leader in
Internet filters." N2H2 runs by the philosophy that
subscribing to a blocked Internet service should be an
option for people who want it. Their children's
service, Bess (www.bess.net), is a "safe" launching
point for youngsters to explore the Net without
stumbling across porn or hate speech.

Their service for businesses, Birddog, restricts
workers from accessing certain categories of sites
that their employer deems inappropriate. Far from
judgmental, N2H2 also sells unrestricted access to the
Net. Basically, they'll provide you with any level of
freedom that you desire.

N2H2's offices in Seattle employ several blockers,
most of whom work the job part-time in order to pursue
other things. Many of the employees are struggling
filmmakers; the joke around the office is that the
whole bizarre experience is great script fodder. For
this month's FAQ, IU conducted an interview with an
N2H2 employee, who preferred that his name not be used
in the piece.


IU: So what's the nitty-gritty of your job? How do you
go about it?

It's gotten pretty much cut-and-dried these days. They
basically have a program with every dirty word they
can imagine. It goes through all the search programs
and makes a list of every page that registers those

IU: Then you personally go check out anything that's

Yeah, they have a whole crew of people that just sit
there and go through the pages. To find out whether or
not it has violence, gore, sex, hate speech, illegal
stuff like hacking information, anything drug-related,
stuff you wouldn't want kids to see.

IU: What about a site that presents medical
information, perhaps on AIDS or reproduction?

It all depends on how graphic it is. It's hard to say
without knowing the language. Does the site cross the
line between being informative and being the kind of
thing that little kids in junior high are going to be
crowded around at the library computer? It's

IU: What about political activism?

As long as it isn't hate-related, then it's OK. We had
a big moral debate one day because I ran into a
historical revisionism page. Many of us thought that
was worse than pornography. But it's really sketchy.
They're not explicitly advocating genocide -- they're
saying, "The Holocaust was a myth, we'll show you how
the photos were doctored, here are the lies in what
the so-called survivors said, and we can prove that it
never happened."

IU: So you let that stay?

Well, what tends to happen with most of those is that
you look around long enough and somewhere there's
something that crosses the boundary between history
and saying, "These people have got to be out of the
country." That would cause us to block.

IU: Do you have strict written guidelines about what
to block?

Not really^It's kind of understood after working there
awhile and seeing the lists of objectionable words.
But it's kind of weird, because after working there a
couple of months, somebody will mention they're seeing
this site and they don't know we're supposed to be
blocking it. It still needs some organization. For
instance, there are a lot of violent video games that
none of us play. I've never seen the game Quake, but I
guess people get blown away in it or something. So,
they block that, for the gore. And for a while, none
of us knew! Someone had been working there for a
couple of months, and commented that it was irritating
that these pages kept coming up. And we said, "Oh,
that's because you're supposed to be getting rid of

The basics of the job is just that you look through
these things and decide whether to let them go or not.
At the bottom of the page, it gives you a menu that
lets you rate it, and you click "good" or "bad."

IU: Do you block a site as soon as you see an age
verification page, or do you look at the page?

I tend to block as soon as I get to a warning page.
There are a lot of times that you see a page and it's
obvious what's going to come up next. But what
surprises you, more often, is when you find just a
bunch of numerals and they all say .gif. You have no
idea what you're going to click on, but you have to at
least click on something to find out what it's a
directory of. I've gotten to the point where I don't
particularly want to see very much.

And I had just kind of assumed that most of the other
adults I was working with would feel the same way. But
one of the women I work with was complaining that
there wasn't really very much porn for women out
there, that she had been hoping to find more of
interest to her. Which really shocked me.

In a way, it can be interesting, but -- I don't know.
I think it can mess people up. So I try to see as
little of it as possible, although it's inevitable
that you're going to run into some.

IU: So it's having an effect on you?

It's starting to. I think that's part of why I've been
in a solemn mood all week. Finally, my boss said
yesterday, "If you want to take some time off, you
can," and I was just about to ask. So I took off this
afternoon. I've just been nasty all week, I've been in
this horrible mood, but ever since I left work this
afternoon, I felt really good.

It's such a repetitive job. You just sit there for
four hours or eight hours or however long. Even if
it's not porn, it's looking through all these things
and saying, "OK, is the word 'fuck' here; can I let
this go, or do I have to find something vile to get
rid of this," and it's really repetitive.

I went to a bookstore after that, and I was looking
for a book, and I was kind of zoning out. I couldn't
remember what book I was looking for when I realized I
was just looking through shelves for dirty words on
the covers of books! And I thought, "You can't block
this, this is real life. Get a grip." I remember
thinking to myself when I got the job: "If this
becomes something that I can't get away from when I'm
not at work, I have to quit." And I think I'm getting
to that point now.

IU: Is it warping your personal life?

I think it is. Porn is one of those things that is
kind of dangerous. You can compare it to alcohol or
drugs: I think a small amount of it, used right, for
some people, is OK. But it's really easy to get
addicted to it, and it's really easy to let it control
the way you see things.

IU: I would think it would be kind of overwhelming.

It's weird; everybody has their different ways of
dealing with it. Some of the people deal with it way
differently than I do, and our methods clash. Some
people are still really into it; as soon as something
comes up that they think is really sexy, they say
heyyyy and they'll call a few other guys over and
they'll all have fun looking. And some people just try
to joke about it, saying, "What a great photographer,"
talking about the artistic merits of someone with a
fish inserted somewhere.

IU: Did you just say what I thought you said?

Yeah. (laughs) That's out there. I don't remember the
URL, but I could probably get it for you.

IU: No, thanks, I don't really want it.

I understand. That's the other thing about the job --
it can give you an extremely low opinion of humanity.
Because there's not an act that hasn't been either
photographed or described. There are things on dogs,
children, horses, industrial machines -- anything your
imagination could possibly stray to. After a while, it
does get really disgusting. It started turning my
stomach, which I'm somewhat happy about, because I
know at least it still bothers me.

IU: At least you know you're not numb.

There are such graphic images. There are a lot of porn
anime sites, and there was one place where I clicked
on the next window, and there was this stunning --
shocking -- picture there. I couldn't get it out of my
head for about a day. It was like a bad song, where no
matter what you do there's this thing going through
your head. Whenever I was bored, this picture would
come back to me. And I was thinking that if I were
involved with somebody, it would be so incredibly
disgusting to be with them sexually, and in the back
of your mind have something like that start popping

IU: You don't think you could keep this job and be in
a relationship?

I was actually dating someone when I started working
here. It didn't last, but at the time I was still new
enough at it that I could kind of divorce myself from
it. But after all this time at the job, it becomes
difficult to forget what you've seen. There are
definitely a lot of unpleasant things I really would
rather not have witnessed.

In fact, relating electronically has gotten really
gross to me. E-mailing, I don't mind, because I know
the person on the other end. But getting to know
someone over the computer has lost all its romance for
me. And when it comes to research, I've had a hard
time finding anything really valid or interesting.

IU: What do people think of the service you provide?

A lot of people jump on it, because the moment you
tell them what you do, they assume it's censorship.
Which in a way it is, but people pay money so they
don't have to look at this stuff. A lot of people get
upset that it's censored in any way. They think that
the people who are subscribing don't know what they're

IU: To me, it just seems like another option. And I'm
always in favor of more options.

Yeah, and you can always say it's helping create jobs.
It's not just destroying the porn industry. It's
saying the porn industry is helping other people. Like

IU: What's your official job title?

Um, I forget. Oh yeah, it's "Internet Content

IU: OK, but how would you describe it if you met
somebody at a party?

At this point, I'd probably just say I worked in data
entry. (laughs)


Declan McCullagh
Time Inc.
The Netly News Network
Washington Correspondent

This list is public. To join fight-censorship-announce, send
"subscribe fight-censorship-announce" to majordomo@vorlon.mit.edu.
More information is at http://www.eff.org/~declan/fc/

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@icf.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@icf.de