Every new medium for human expression inspires both excitement and anxiety. No sooner was the Internet upon us in the 1990s than anxiety arose over the ease of accessing pornography and other controversial content. In response, entrepreneurs soon developed filtering products. By the end of the decade, a new industry had emerged to create and market Internet filters.
The filters were highly imprecise. The problem was intrinsic to the technology. The sheer size of the Internet meant that identifying potentially offensive content had to be done mechanically, by matching “key” words and phrases; hence, the blocking of websites for “Middle sex County,” “ Beaver College,” and “ breast cancer”—just three of the better-known among thousands of early examples of overly broad, and indeed irrational, filtering.
Some people argued that inaccuracy was an acceptable cost of keeping the Internet safe, especially for kids.