FAQ: Confessions of a Smut Blocker

  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to scour the Net for filth...As a full-time job.
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, 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 words.

IU: Then you personally go check out anything that's suspect?
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 subjective.

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 them." 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 up.

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 missing.

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 me.

IU: What's your official job title?
Um, I forget. Oh yeah, it's "Internet Content Supervisor."

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)


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