June 12, 2009

EIE Comments on Bing's Modifications


June 12, 2009 5:05 PM PDT
Bing modified to enable porn filtering
by Larry Magid

After plenty of coverage about how its Bing search engine makes it all too easy for kids to find and view porn, Microsoft has made some changes that will make it easier for parents to block or monitor what their kids are viewing on the site.

In a blog post, Microsoft announced that it is making two changes the company thinks will help address the issue.

According to the post, "explicit images and video content will now be coming from a separate single domain, explicit.bing.net. This is invisible to the end customer, but allows for filtering of that content by domain, which makes it much easier for customers at all levels to block this content regardless of what the SafeSearch settings might be."

With this change, parents should be able to use parental control tools to block that domain and therefore block the images and videos. Almost all third-party filtering tools can be configured to block specific domains or sites, as can the parental controls in Microsoft Vista and Mac OS X.

Microsoft will also return the "source URL" information of specific images and videos, so if a filtering program blocks that site, it will prevent the video or image from being viewed within Bing. For example, if there is a video playing at Playboy.com, a filtering program that blocks Playboy would also prevent someone from viewing the content from inside Bing.

I tested this by right-clicking on a thumbnail of an explicit video in Bing and looking at properties. The URL of the image began with "ts3.explicit.bing.net." When I right-clicked on a sexual photograph, it contained "ts1.explicit.bing.net."

In an e-mail, Microsoft spokesman David Burt said the company has reached out to more than 25 filtering and security vendors to work with them to provide a solution for filtering explicit content while using Bing.

Bing raised the ire of some Internet safety advocates when it was discovered that all you have to do to watch an explicit video or view an image was to hover your mouse over its thumbnail within a Bing search. Although Bing's default settings would not bring up sexually explicit content, it did display an invitation saying "to view these videos, turn off safe search." One click later, the videos would start to play.

Microsoft's changes are likely to silence some--but not all--critics. Cris Clapp from the Internet safety group Enough is Enough said that "the steps they've taken are good," but added "it's important for them to make it more intuitive to guide parents to change filter settings."

These new features should also make it easier for schools and businesses to filter student or employee access to explicit content.

I'm pleased that Microsoft responded relatively quickly to concerns about how easy it was for kids to find and view porn. But even with these changes, parents still need to stay in close touch with how their kids are using Bing or any other Internet site. Not all families will want to use Internet filters. I didn't when my kids were younger but instead had frequent conversations with them about appropriate Internet use. But these changes should be welcome news for those parents who do choose to use tools to filter or monitor their kids' access. Without filters in place, it will still be easy for kids to access porn from within Bing, but at least parents will soon be able to block it if that's what they want to do.