Last Shabbos, I heard the story of a man who couldn't understand why the Daf Yomi's Siyyum haShas (celebration of completing a cycle of daily Talmud study) wasn't happening until August; he was done already! What was taking the rest of us so long?
Upon further exploration, the problem became clear: He was learning over the Internet, and his filter had erased half of Masechet Niddah…
More seriously, though, a month after the much-ballyhooed and much-maligned New York "Asifa" regarding the Internet, I'm still hearing about it. Many comments are thoughtful, pointing out the positives and negatives of this gathering. But I've heard quite a bit from people who ridicule the whole idea of the gathering as Luddite, benighted, medieval.
For the record, then:
1. I believe the Internet is a tremendous force for good. From on-line libraries like Hebrewbooks.org, to listservs dedicated to Torah discussion, to websites organizing tzedakah and chesed, the Internet can be our third arm or second brain, enabling us to fulfill our mission as Jews and human beings.
2. I use a filter on my laptop. I think that everyone should use filters, both on computers which are accessible to children and on computers which are used only by adults.
It's common sense, not religious paranoia. Why on earth would I want to empower vendors to determine what goes into my brain, and webmasters to serve as curators of my mind? Why on earth would I want to look at things that I know will distract me from that mission of Jew and human being? Why would I want to look at things the erudite Talmud, worldly Rambam and dispositive Shulchan Aruch prohibit? I can be a broad, informed, connected person without being exposed to every website.
A filter doesn't limit personal freedom - I can edit my 'whitelist' of acceptable websites and referrers as I choose - but it ensures that I think about what I am going to see, and it serves as a helpful reminder of the person I am and the person I wish to become.
My current model is a simple whitelist filter, a modified version of the general-audience Privoxy filter; you can get it here. [You can laugh all you like at the fact that I am using a filter found on Hareidi.org, but you should know that they also offer an on-line JPS translation of Tanach here.]
Yes, it was time-consuming at first to add all of the sites I use. (Complaint: The Rebbetzin's Husband was not on the pre-loaded whitelist. On the other hand, The Muqata and The Renegade Rebbetzin were there – is there a message in this?). And yes, my customized whitelist is probably a bit broader than those of most people who use filters. But it's still worth it.
Why? Because pretending that I am not a human being, with human distractability and human desire, would be silly. It's common sense.
Yes, filters are inadequate; I've tried different versions over the years, and I know that there is no substitute for 1) self control, 2) study of Torah and mussar and 3) the presence of other people around me.
I also know that the filter is only as good as my commitment not to disable it at any given moment.
Nonetheless, its presence is a reminder that I am vulnerable, and that I need to be smart about what I do. Really, who could argue with that?
3. I understand very well why some would ban the Net entirely; that is not my path, but I certainly wouldn't denigrate it. I don't know that my path of filtering is any more correct than theirs, and I would be suspicious of anyone arrogant enough to claim the Correct Path. What I do believe is this: We will be a much stronger nation when we sit down together to discuss these concerns, develop solutions, and pursue our mission together.