Over two years ago, I read in Maxwell Anderson’s Weekend Reader newsletter about a new internet tool that was doing things no one else had figured out:
1. Filter images, not just websites
Other products on the market, like Disney’s Circle or Covenant Eyes, allow users to set filters on their wifi network to block websites. I use Circle and think it’s helpful. But many of the most popular websites feature a mix of appropriate and inappropriate content—Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It just is the nature of the modern Internet (and this is largely driven by the advent and embrace of user-generated content). In this kind of world, the all-or-nothing approach of blocking or allowing entire websites just doesn’t work.
Only Canopy allows users to filter content within websites. Canopy will allow you to view appropriate content on those sites, while filtering out what’s inappropriate, because it uses computer vision to analyze images on your screen as they are being loaded, and filters out inappropriate content real-time. With Canopy, you get the good without the bad and avoid all of those fights with your kids. No other technology does this.
2. Filter video not just still images
Canopy can work like that because it recognizes inappropriate content in video in addition to still images. This is also unique in the world of filters available to consumers and super-important since video is making up a greater and greater share of online content.
3. It works in the background
Internet filters offered today work one of two ways. Wifi filters block websites you deem inappropriate when you are attached to a particular network – but they don’t work when you leave that network. Browser filters block sites when you use that browser—but don’t prevent you or your kid from using a different browser. Canopy works in the background of your device, regardless of the browser you use and regardless of what network you are on.
4. It can prevent sexting
Canopy doesn’t just work on your browser, it works on your device. So when your kid receives a text message with sexual image, Canopy can filter it out. If your kid tries to snap an inappropriate photo of him or herself, Canopy will lock the image and send the parent a warning. Once locked, the image can’t be edited or shared.
Sean Clifford is the CEO of Canopy, a tech company in Austin that uses the most effective technology on the planet to block pornography. He was kind enough to answer some questions about their amazing technology and the vision behind their work.
Before we get into the details of how the technology works and why pornography is such a massive problem in our world today, let’s begin at a more personal level: Why do you care so much about this?
My wife and I have four children. We want to give them a chance to be kids. We want to provide them the space to develop a healthy understanding of intimacy. We would love for them to meet a great person, get married, and have happy marriages. All of those things become significantly harder in a world saturated by pornography.
As someone who cares about families flourishing, I think pornography is one of the greatest challenges we have to confront. It causes a tremendous amount of suffering, warps imaginations, impedes healthy relationships, destroys marriages, and more. This is borne out by survey research, medical studies, and a thousand heart-breaking anecdotes that I could share. Right now, it is hard to avoid even if you don’t seek it out.
Lastly, this topic touches on two of the most important questions of today: Can we live well with technology? And can we successfully regulate our appetites in a culture that is reluctant to suggest any sort of limits? We are in trouble if we don’t get these answers right. Canopy isn’t the entire solution, but it is a critical piece.
Can you tell me more about Canopy?
Canopy is a tech company on a mission to create a world of healthy tech users. We think the Internet is amazing, but recognize that it isn’t always safe for children. We are hopeful to change that by shifting the choice of what is seen from search engines, marketers and strangers back to families.
Our first product is a next-generation Internet filter that protects kids from online pornography, wherever it appears. One of the big challenges of navigating the digital world is that explicit content no longer is limited to pornography websites. It can appear anywhere and everywhere, which renders many of the traditional safeguards ineffective.
To confront this challenge, we are bringing advanced tech to the fight. Our software leverages cutting-edge technology that was developed, tested, and deployed in Israel. With these advances, our filter can detect sexually explicit content in real time and seamlessly remove it. We also employ the image-recognition AI to deter sexting by flagging if photos saved to the device contain nudity or minimal clothing.
You have made the argument that pornography has changed over the last few decades. What is the difference between “old porn” and “new porn,” and what sort of generational divide are you seeing when it comes to understanding just how harmful pornography can be?
A lot of people’s perception of pornography is stuck in the Sixties. They think Playboy: a few nude photos in a magazine that’s really hard to find. That’s “old porn” and it’s amazingly tame compared to what our kids are exposed to today.
“New porn” is much more addictive, harmful, and difficult to avoid. It’s a totally different problem than what parents faced with Playboy.
Let’s start with addiction. Video pornography is just more compelling than photos. Add the instant availability of the smartphone and the endless novelty of new content, and you have the most tempting and bingeable pornography ever made. It’s no wonder millions of Americans say they are addicted.
Next, let’s talk about the harmful impact of “new porn.” We know from the scientific literature that pornography is formative. It shapes our tastes, our perception of what’s normal, and the brain itself. For example, over time users have to watch more and more intense content to get the same effect. That means that a teenage boy with normal sexual desires can—after years of consuming pornography—find that he’s developed unhealthy and extreme tastes. That’s not a recipe for healthy, real-life relationships.
The real tragedy—and the problem we are determined to tackle—is just how hard “new porn” is to avoid. You don’t have to go looking for it, it now comes looking for you. It’s on social media, on group chats, and on “good” websites that you’d never expect to have explicit content.
Today, if parents don’t take action, it’s virtually inevitable that their children will be exposed to pornography. Statistically, it’s likely to happen before they graduate from elementary school. That’s terrifying.
There are growing criticisms of pornography as harmful to public health. But it seems to me that there are two kinds of health warnings that cultural gatekeepers can offer. On the one hand, there are poison warnings (ingest this, and it could kill you!); on the other hand, there are ingredient warnings (too much salt in your diet can have negative repercussions, so use it in moderation). I think a good swath of the elites’ analysis of pornography falls more into the latter category. Agree or disagree?
That assessment accurately describes the consensus perspective of the last 20 years, but things are changing. More and more folks are realizing that porn should come with a “poison warning” and not merely counsel for “moderation.”
Thanks to advances in science and medicine, we now know a lot more about how pornography impacts the brain and body. Studies suggest that porn can be overwhelmingly addictive, rewire the brain, and result in physical symptoms like erectile dysfunction. Moreover, as the very nature of porn shifts from “old porn” to “new porn,” its impact is much more pronounced. Pornhub is exponentially more addicting than Playboy, and that is starting to appear in the research.
Concern about pornography’s impact on children is not new, but it has taken on a greater weight as the nature of pornography has become more intense and the age of exposure continues to drop.
How does Canopy’s software work?
First, I should note that Canopy is a software program that works on smartphones, tablets, and computers. There is a dashboard app for parents to control settings and a child app that installs the filter, and it takes about 15 minutes to set up. At a high level, we designed Canopy to deliver families a porn-free Internet experience.
Our next-gen Internet filter was made possible by a few big tech breakthroughs. Our tech team developed an advanced artificial intelligence system that can detect pornographic content with over 99.7% accuracy. They also identified a way to scan and filter traffic in milliseconds, as you browse, to prevent exposure from happening in the first place.
Thanks to these advances, Canopy blocks porn websites, even if they are brand new and have never been scanned or tagged before.
Another unique feature is that we can seamlessly filter within web pages, serving the good without the bad. As explicit content no longer is limited to porn websites, this is a critical capability.
We also have a sexting prevention feature that can detect if photos saved to the device contain nudity or minimal clothing. Once an image is flagged, the child has the choice: delete the inappropriate photo or send it to a parent to review. That’s a powerful deterrent that can stop someone from sending a bikini or lingerie photo, which is typically the gateway to sending nudes.
A lot of readers use or have used various platforms, tools, and filters so that they don’t see pornography. How is Canopy different from what is currently on the market?
At a high level, one key distinction is that we are focused on prevention, not accountability. There are some good tools out there for accountability. Our goal is to prevent exposure. Turning to the customer experience, our product is unique in a few ways:
First, we block pornography that other filters miss. Most filters rely on a list of known bad websites, so they might miss new porn sites and pornography that appears on sites that contain both good and bad content. As our software filters traffic in real time, it can catch a lot more.
Second, by filtering within websites, Canopy can deliver the good without the bad. Traditional filters offer a blunt, all-or-nothing choice that blocks too much or too little. Do you want all of Twitter or none of Twitter? We like to think that we bring a scalpel instead of a butcher’s cleaver.
Third, Canopy is the only tool out there that scans and analyzes photos on the device to deter sexting. There are no other products on the market that offer that functionality.
Finally, we are tirelessly working to make Canopy as tamper-proof as possible. A filter that you can delete or circumvent isn’t very helpful. For example, we developed an uninstall prevention feature to prevent removal without permission, and when we can’t filter within apps, we grant parents the ability to limit access. We are always tracking how tech savvy teenagers get around filters (and frequently they do). Many of their approaches are ingenious, but they won’t work with Canopy.
Tell us a little bit more about your parent company and its track record in Israel.
An amazing figure, Rabbi Moshe Weiss, helped found the company to ensure that families could partake in the digital world without all of the toxic content that comes with it. Netspark has been active in Israel for more than a decade and now protects more than 2 million smartphones, tablets, and computers. Through partnerships with the Israeli Ministry of Education, Netspark’s technology helps safeguard more than 90% of the schools.
Beyond the numbers, the company is beginning to have an impact on the culture and has helped create a new social standard. We hear stories from our colleagues of parents asking other parents if their devices are protected in advance of a sleepover. They tell us of girls informing guys they need a filter on their devices in order to date and high school students taking it upon themselves to get a filter because they want to live free from temptations.
It is an encouraging case study and inspires what we would like to achieve here in the States.
If readers want to give Canopy a try, is there a discount code they could use for a free trial?
We’d love that! They can visit canopy.us and use the code “TGC” for 30 days free and 15% off forever.
And we really want to hear from folks who embrace this mission. Anyone can send us a note at [email protected] We are committed to getting this right and welcome both feedback and new ideas for ways we can help families.
In July of 2021, Crossway will publish Garrett Kell’s Pure in Heart: Sexual Sin and the Promises of God, and in September 2021, Crossway will publish Ray Ortlund’s The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility. I highly recommend both books.