One of the most common online behaviors is web searching, sometimes referred to as “Googling” (courtesy of Google, the most popular search engine today).23 While we typically think of “searching” in the sense of using a search engine (such as Google or Bing) an even larger number of searches are performed on sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that serve up massive amounts of user-generated content. While I primarily address web searching in this section, you need to be aware that every website that serves up user-generated content has issues that must be understood and dealt with appropriately in order to be safe. In most cases, the concerns voiced here for web searching apply similarly to other services with search capability.24
Web searching is a potentially dangerous activity, primarily because of the pervasive nature of illicit content. In other words, when we search, we embark into uncharted waters, and we already know that illicit content is all over the water. So the likelihood that we will inadvertently bump into inappropriate content is fairly high.
Most search engines provide some descriptive information concerning search results, primarily in textual form (we’ll talk specifically about image searching a little later). This textual description constitutes a bit of good news/bad news for users. The good news is that you can often see from the text that a particular page isn’t a good place to visit, and you can therefore avoid the content. The bad news is that the same information that helps you avoid inappropriate content, also tells the user, “Hey, there’s inappropriate content right here!” For a user that is curious, or perhaps has struggled in the past with pornography addiction, that bit of text may constitute a teaser sufficient to send him or her looking for more of that content.
Image and video searching on the web are far more risky for the following reason. No matter which search engine you use, an image or video search will serve up a page full of thumbnail pictures of the image or video results. A “thumbnail” is simply a small version of the actual search result, allowing the search engine to put many results on the same web page. Given the pervasiveness of pornographic content, many search terms (even apparently innocent ones) will generate a certain amount of inappropriate content. But unlike a textual description, when the results of an image or video search are served up, the viewer immediately ingests the images, even if they’re in a small thumbnail form. Photo sharing sites are increasingly popular and are a prominent source of inappropriate content, so caution must be exercised when visiting such sites. Video sites are similarly potentially problematic.
Search engines provide a modicum of protection for users. The two most popular search engines, Google and Bing, both provide a SafeSearch option. Google’s implementation treats the SafeSearch as a switch that can be turned on, allowing the user to filter sexually explicit content from search results. Bing provides three settings that the user can control: Strict (filter out adult text, images, and videos from search results), Moderate (filter adult images and videos but not text from search results), and Off (don’t filter adult content from search results). Turning on SafeSearch in Google, and setting SafeSearch to Strict in Bing, generally helps to avoid accidental exposure to inappropriate content that might otherwise appear. But as I discussed above, no filtering solution is foolproof. So even using SafeSearch, some illicit content will still sneak through.
Most content filtering solutions (like NetNanny) take control of the SafeSearch options within a search engine and enforce strict filtering.
24 One of the values provided by the Internet Safety Project is the availability of specific technical information and guidance on literally hundreds of online services and content providers. A thorough discussion is outside the scope of a book like this and would be obsolete within six months in any case. The Internet Safety Project is detailed in the information it presents, comprehensive in its scope, and dynamic in its content. I refer the reader there for particular information for specific services.