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Blocked Sites

June 04, 2007

Jack Ganssle-June 04, 2007

Do you surf porn during the workday?

Of course you don't. I imagine that only a tiny percentage of professionals while away the business day clicking through X-rated sites.

But an increasing number of correspondents are apologetic when they can't get to a site I recommend, due to filters on the corporate firewall. Trust me, I'm not sending them steamy URLs. These are for papers, discussion groups, and other embedded resources. Sometimes they're on sites like Yahoo, which it seems a lot of companies prohibit.

Some readers tell me they don't even have access to Usenet! Admittedly, there are an awful lot of useful and offensive Usenet groups, and in some groups a small percentage of posters just seem to be determined to pollute rather than contribute. But the globe's servers have a vast store of knowledge that can speed development.

The Internet changed the way we access information. Once it was all stored in central repositories: libraries, magazine collections, etc. Now it's distributed. A useful nugget is on one site, another somewhere else. Sometimes a tantalizing reference to a paper leads one on a chase through the electronic labyrinth which may result in an approach, algorithm, or canned snippet of code that saves hours or weeks. Sometimes there's a dead end, but that's the very nature of research.

And, yes, sometimes there's a link that takes one to an unexpected place. I tried to log onto a well-known sporting goods store's site, once, clicking faster than thinking. It turns out that the correct URL is http://www.dickssportinggoods.com/. The shorter name for which they are usually known goes to a very different sort of site.

That misadventure cost me a second or two, plus a chuckle and an amusing story. If a work-related search had gone similarly awry, the cost, too, would have been immeasurable. We're grownups; we're professionals, and the vast majority of engineers that I know are so focused on doing a good job that this minor distraction has no impact on their performance.

Do the suits feel we might be hidden in our cubes (how hidden is one in a cube, anyway?) wasting the company's day digging through the net's filth? If that's the case there's a much larger dynamic at work: there's no trust. Without trust no engineering team will be successful. Without trust managers are forced to micromanage every aspect of each person's work day.

"Empowerment" spurned a management revolution over the last few decades. Every successful business person extols the idea of giving the employees general direction and resources, then get out of the way. Trust them and watch the magic happen.

Restricting net access is an electronic version of the nun hovering over a sea of fearful 10 year olds, switch in hand, ready to thwack a transgressor's knuckles. 5th graders may need that enforced discipline. Professionals don't.

What do you think? Are you're in a sort of net Faraday cage?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.


It's the fear of offending someone and law suits, you can thank the ACLU.

- Steve King


Yup, no empowerment here. I'm sure I'm being protected from the weather, hobbyist sites that conduct e-business, health related sites and of course, daily news. Mostly technical sites are available but every once in a while I'm blocked. Whenever I am blocked I am always presented with the opportunity to object and send the sysadmin the offending site URL which he can then manually unblock. However, this takes precious time and I can't help but think that the more so called "offending" sites I request access to, the more I am scrutinized for any other misbehavior. Trust definitely does NOT abound.

I'm tempted to forward a link to this article to the sysadmin but fear in fact that it is the old school, conservative owner of the company that actually sets the policy. and I do so like my job, sigh...

- Stephen Ciricillo


Pretty much every company I have consulted for has given me unlimited access to the Internet. I can tell you this, there are a ton of useful stuff on those Yahoo groups out there. I know of a few companies that block access to this stuff. I have solved many problems through these discussion groups. Plus, the Linux development is pretty much fueled by technical discussions on the various Usenet groups and technical blogs out there.

This brings to mind a funny story. In Ye Olde Days of pre-Internet, the only real tech support one could get was either the printed manuals, or telephone support. Then along came Borland, and they created a ton of really useful PC-related development tools. Then along comes the New and Improved and bigger and better Borland! When you got your new software development tools, they talked about varying levels of support including their new tech support Porno line!. Do any of you folks out there remember this? Basically, all you did was call the Borland 900-tech support sex number and you got ... A real live support professional who was supposed to know everything there is to know about their OWL development kit!

At one point, I was developing an automated industrial plating controller using a PC with Windows platform, and using Borland's OWL. Only, when I ran into some snags, I could not call the Borland sex line to help me fix it. The company had blocked all access to the 900 prefix for outbound phone calls! I had to use the CEO's car-phone, (gee, that CEO car-phone wasn't blocked!) in order to get the help I needed at the time!

- Ken Wada


I believe it's an issue of (mis)trust and laziness more than anything. At my present company, the IS department blocks access to nearly all of the Linux-related web sites and I have to continually override the restriction for my employees to do basic research. The filter message says the sites are blocked because the have advertisements and because they are purportedly hacker sites. I have argued this point with IS and the reply I got was that my engineers don't know anything about Linux and IS needs to protect them from themselves!

- Rob Miller


My last company grew atrocious about that, blocking everything except SSH and some of the web. Website block notices declaring "pornographic" or "illegal" on topics such as Linux or IPv6 were worth a chuckle the first few days. "Contains profanity" generality evoked more cursing than I was prevented from reading. But having key protocols such as FTP, CVS (source control), NNTP, and RTSP and relatives blocked was preventing me from doing my job. Many engineers used SSH to tunnel to their home machines so they could access these critical resources, thus negating the whole premise of blocking.

Sadly, trust had collapsed there. When I decried needing NNTP at a minimum, Google Groups was suggested. When I pointed out that I needed access to a private NNTP server for a beta of an excellent upcoming tool I was involved in, they still refused, claiming that if the port were opened, they couldn't prevent me from viewing content other than that particular forum.

There seemed to be a number of upper management fears in play. I've heard some companies fearing access to communication methods outside of corporate servers (such as Yahoo! mail, IM, IRC, etc.) for rogue out-of-band messages or file transfers. My company just seemed too lazy to edit the default web nanny list, and didn't trust employees to not waste time via internet. I'm guessing they didn't realize we were resorting to rogue methods *because* of the lockdowns. I can only wonder at how salaries or bonuses were determined, if the managers didn't know or care which employees were goofing off.

- Eric Nelson

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