Friday, December 28, 2007

Filters 101: User Generated Content

With the soaring popularity of User Generated Content sites (like YouTube and MySpace), I have had many people ask me about how filters handle that content. I thought it was time to sit down a blog about it, so here goes.

First of all, let me state very clearly that I am a huge supporter of filters, and believe that every computer should have an updated and operational filter installed. Having said that, filters are far from perfected technology, and they don't deal well with user-generated content.

Before we can talk about YouTube, we need to understand a little bit about how filters work. There are essentially two things that filters can use to determine whether to display a page or not: it can either look at the URL, or it can use the content of the page to determine what category it falls into. The former is like blocking a channel on your TV, and the latter is like blocking shows based on their rating. The main difference between a computer filter and your TV parental controls, though, is that on the computer the filter attempts to "rate" the content on the fly, while the content on the TV uses a standard rating system. Television filtering is a much easier problem, as the parental control only needs to look at a standard rating in the stream, and can then enforce your choices for your family - the computer filter has to use sophisticated linguistic algorithms to determine what the content is. It is a much less accurate process.

So, how does this all apply to User Generated Content? Sites like YouTube and MySpace allow anyone to create content and upload it to their site for others to view. This does not go through any type of standard rating system, and when the content that is uploaded is video or images, the linguistic algorithms that filters use are relatively useless. This means that unless you block the entire site by adding the URL to your block list, the site is mainly unfiltered. If enough people type comments onto the page that describe what the video relates to, then the linguistic algorithms have something to work from, and they will pick up the page and categorize it - but this is only based on the textual comments added to the site. This is a very unreliable method of categorizing the video content.

Now, why is this important? Two reasons:

1. False sense of security with filters. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to explain this to parents. Their usual response is "but, I have a filter installed - won't that block the inappropriate content from YouTube?" Too often we install a filter and then feel that our job of protecting our children online is done - unfortunately, filters are only a piece of the puzzle. We still need to remain very aware of what our children are doing online, and how they spend their time. If they are spending large amounts of time on sites like YouTube, we need to know what they are seeing and why. The best way to do this is the old-fashioned way: Communication. Direct questions.

2. Undesirable content is easily masked to appear innocuous. It is a sad fact of our life today that people want to push their inappropriate content into our homes. In the early days of the Internet, people would register domain names that were a common mis-spelling of a popular site, and would post pornographic content there. This made it very easy for someone to stumble across a bad site. An example of this was (instead of This used to host pornography, until a law was passed that made this type of deception illegal. Unfortunately, there are no similar laws for user-generated content (yet). So, someone could easily film some extremely inappropriate content, label it "Sponge bob" and upload it.

I ran into an example of this recently. I was searching for that very funny SNL skit with Christopher Walken, so I searched for "cow bell". I found a video which looks like a possible hit for the content I was searching for. Instead, it turned out to be an ad for a presidential campaign. This is a perfect example of what our children could run into: they search for one thing, someone uploads content that appears to be what they are looking for, only to find that it is something much more offensive than a presidential advertisement. And no filter would catch it, unless you block the entire site where the content is hosted.

The bottom line here is that we need to be very careful about what our children are viewing online, and we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security just because we have a filter.

In a future post, I will discuss the related problem of very popular peer-to-peer file sharing applications and how undesirable content can get bypass our filter, virus protection and other apps designed to keep that content off of our systems.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blogging 101

For those who may not understand the coolness of blogging, here is a youTube video that explains blogging in laymans terms...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I.T. as part of the business? Ludicrous.

I.T. is just a cost center, isn't it? The "business" is everyone who is not involved in I.T., right? Even as I settle into my new job in a very large organization, there is talk of having to align I.T. with the "business", or how important it is to satisfy our "customer" - meaning the rest of the organization that is not part of I.T.

This thinking is backwards, and creates the kind of attitude that will simply continue the difficult relationship between I.T. and the rest of the company. Instead, I.T. needs to be considered as part of the business - a part that is critical to its success, not a necessary evil that has to be overcome in order for the business to be successful. Too often, the "business" sees I.T. as a bunch of techno-geeks who just want to create cool technology, rather than an integral part of the company that needs to be leveraged as a partner to satisfy overall business needs. They are seen as technologists who don't really understand the intricacies of the business, and who should be kept on a need-to-know basis when it comes to business decisions.

We need to make I.T. a partner with the rest of the business in solving problems, and finding ways to satisfy our true customers: the end-user of the output of our business. Until we look at it that way, there will be a disconnect within the organization. This concept is eloquently stated in a recent blog post on

In order for this to happen, the entire organization needs to see I.T. as partners in solving problems, and needs to bring them to the table sooner rather than later. I have seen too many examples of "the business" trying to keep I.T. at arms length, and rather than bringing them to the table during the brainstorming of solutions, they involve I.T. only after they have decided what they want to do, and give only the information that they think I.T. needs to provide their part of the overall solution. This is fragmented, and leads to mediocre solutions in the end.

So, how do we change this? I.T. people need to change their attitude toward "the business", and stop hiding behind the thought process of "that is a business decision. Once they figure out what they want, we can provide it", and take on instead the attitude of "what is the real problem we are trying to solve for our customers, and how can we help our business achieve those goals". The non-I.T. folks also need to change their behavior, and realize that I.T. is much more than just the technical solution, but that there is real value in bringing them into the "inner circle".

When this happens, our business will be more aligned and we will have much better technology solutions that help keep our real customers happy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Future of Technology

I heard a great quote the other day at the UTC hall of fame that I wanted to share.

The quote came from Stanford Business School's Magazine. It was from
the school's former chairman of the board of trustees, and successful
private investor and entrepreneur Issac Stein.He said:
"We need to train our Graduate Business School students
for leadership in solving problems that have not yet been defined, with
technology that has not yet been invented."

Those who think that the best days in high tech were the 80's and 90's should be aware of the oft-quoted IBM exec who once said that the world would have use for maybe 5 computers at most. While times are certainly different than the garage-based startups turned huge successes, there are still plenty of great technological advances to be made.

The best is certainly ahead of us from a technology standpoint. Personally, I love the high tech industry, and look forward to the exciting days ahead.

Monday, December 3, 2007

UTC Hall of Fame

I attended another great Utah Technology Council Hall of Fame on Friday. It was a great event, as usual. The keynote speaker was Paul Otellini, President of Intel corporation.

Mr. Otellini mentioned two statistics that I found particularly interesting. First, he said that Intel projects that in 2009 laptop sales will out pace desktop sales. We are becoming a much more mobile culture. Then he mentioned that overall Internet traffic is expected to double every year through 2011. DOUBLE. Wow.

Taken in tandem, these two statistics, if they prove to be true, would indicate that by 2011 we will be a mobile Internet society, with the expectation that we can access whatever information we want anytime we want. The implications for businesses, as well as for family safety, are astounding. Mr. Otellini spoke of the Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), which will provide for a much richer Internet experience while on the go.

I expect that he is right. The day after attending this event I went up to the mountains for a quick getaway with my wife. Unfortunatly, my BYU football team was playing a re-scheduled game in San Diego, and since I was not able to watch it on TV, I just wanted to get updated scores on on my blackberry. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a place to obtain these scores during the game. When I did finally find a site that would just give me the score, we were too far up in the mountains to get a signal. I realized two things:

1. I expect to be able to access the Internet anywhere, anytime these days, especially for news and sports. If I cannot be in front of the TV to see a game, I just expect that I will be able to get the score wherever I happen to be.

2. Most Internet sites have not yet caught up to the mobile device craze - there are just too few sites designed for the small screens of today. Our cell phones, blackberries and the MIDs that will be coming in the near future have very limited screen space, and need websites specifically designed for them. Far too few websites have a mobile device alternative.

If Mr. Otellini is right, it won't be long before most websites cater to the mobile devices, and I won't have to worry about not being able to get updated scores while spending a weekend in the mountains with my wife. While I am looking forward to that day, the truth is I will probably never be able to actually make use of it - my wife will most likely make me leave my MID at home.