Internet Filtering

By Barbara Miner

Second in a series on censorship

By Barbara Miner

Imagine if an unknown person came into your school library every month and removed books from the shelves. You would never be told which books were being taken or why, other than that someone, somewhere, deemed them “inappropriate,” “indecent,” “radical,” “tasteless,” or “gross.” Imagine if the books included works on the Holocaust, Islam, AIDS/HIV, gay rights, the National Organization for Women, or the International Workers of the World union.

Couldn’t ever happen? Guess again.

Under the guise of protecting children from “smut” and “indecency,” Internet filtering programs routinely block access to thousands of World Wide Web pages, chat-rooms, newsgroups and other Internet options — including the topics listed above. What’s more, if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gets his way, Congress will pass legislation mandating that school districts must use filtering software if they want to receive discounts on telecommunications services, or what is known as the E-rate.

Groups fighting censorship, in particular organizations which want to nurture the democratic potential of the Internet, are hoping to scuttle the legislation. They also want to alert the public to the dark underside of seemingly innocuous filtering programs.

“The word ‘filter’ is much too kind to these programs. It conjures up inaccurate, gee-whiz images of sophisticated, discerning choice,” Seth Finkelstein, a founder of The Censorware Project, said in testimony on the McCain bill this spring. “When these products are examined in detail, they usually turn out to be the crudest of blacklists, long tables of hapless material which has run afoul of a stupid computer program or person, perhaps offended by the word ‘breast’ (as in possibly ‘breast cancer’) … .”

Such warnings are more than political rhetoric. Every filtering program that has been examined in detail, for instance, has placed feminist organizations on its list of censored sites, according to The Censorware Project, an on-line group founded by computer software experts, free speech advocates, and Internet activists. A number of filtering software companies have even blocked sites reporting on political and technical problems with the software.

Filtering programs are “a bait-and-switch maneuver,” argue Brock Meeks and Declan McCullagh, authors of a 1996 investigative article on filtering in the e-mail publication CyberWire Dispatch. “The smut-censors say they’re going after porn, but they quietly restrict political speech.”

Michael Sims of The Censorware Project cautions that people need to be skeptical of claims by filtering companies that they are technically capable of thoughtfully reviewing the million of pages on the World Wide Web. “Everyone knows that a standard automobile doesn’t get 200 miles per gallon of gas, so that claim is unrealistic,” Sims told Rethinking Schools. “But people don’t understand that some of the claims of censorware makers are equally unrealistic.”

Communications Decency Act

Protecting children from pornography on the Internet is clearly an important issue. The discussion, however, has been dominated by fear, scare stories, and political posturing. Opponents of censorship are especially worried that some groups, especially politicians and organizations affiliated with the religious right, are using legitimate concerns about protecting children to push through a broader agenda of “cleaning up” the free-wheeling world of the Internet and imposing a moralistically and politically narrow view of the world.

One of the most important Internet censorship battles involved the Comunications Decency Act (CDA). Passed by Congress in the fall of 1996, the bill would, in practice, have banned “indecency” from the Internet as a way of protecting children from “patently offensive” material. Those sections of the law involving the Internet were found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 1997. The CDA was “a creature of the religious right, which had a significant hand in sculpting it, lining up politicians to support it, and then supplying them with the ammunition they needed to get it passed,” according to Jonathan Wallace, author of the book Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace and a founder of the Internet magazine The Ethical Spectacle.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the CDA has been called “the first free speech ruling of the 21st Century.” In it, the court argues that the Internet is akin to printed material, not to radio or television, and deserves the highest free speech protections. It reiterates that the Internet “is a unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication,” and that it is “no exaggeration to conclude that the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” (The beginning pages of the majority decision are a wonderful summary of the Internet’s origins, scope and potential. Download the ruling.)

Both sides in the CDA suit stipulated as fact that, while pornography is available on the web, almost all sexually explicit images are preceded by warnings. The “odds are slim” that users would encounter such material accidentally, according to the court.

Having been set back in the courts, religious right groups and their allies turned toward imposing filtering software in public libraries and schools. In a typical story, the conservative Washington Times wrote a story in October 1997 with the headline: “Cyberporn at libraries has smut foes furious: We need to keep pornography out of taxpayer facilities.” A story that December in the Weekly Standard was titled: “Quiet in the Library! Children Viewing Porn.” The magazine, generally considered the leading conservative newsweekly, criticized the American Library Association for its concern with censorship and the use of filtering software in public libraries. It then asked:

So, what should conservatives do in response? They could adopt a libertarian stance: Shut down the libraries and let citizens do their own Web searches at home, with or without filters. Or they could try to take the libraries back from the American Library Association; perhaps local politicians could fire recalcitrant librarians, which would free up cash for computer-equipped charter schools whose librarians treat parents’ concerns with respect. The Republican Congress could pass a law that helps parents sue librarians who fail to take reasonable measures [against indecency] … Congress could even go a step further and prod the Justice Department to jail careless librarians when the computers under their charge are used to break the law.

Charged Political Atmosphere

It’s not surprising that many school districts have decided to use filtering software. Given legitimate concerns about protecting children from pornography and age-inappropriate material, coupled with the highly charged political atmosphere that surrounds all school issues, they may feel that they have little choice. “Obviously, schools need to be concerned about some of the materials that people are producing that may not be appropriate for kids,” notes Gary Marx of the American Association of School Administrators. “If schools don’t worry about it, then they will be told very quickly by people in the community, if there is an incident, that they had better be concerned.”

As more information becomes available about filtering software, a growing number of media, education, and computer groups are advising caution. For instance, the Journalism Education Association, which represents middle and high school journalism teachers and advisors for school papers, passed a resolution in November that “strongly opposes the use of filters or blocking software.” Other groups concerned about filtering software range from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Feminists for Free Expression, the PEN American Center, and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The controversy centers around the use of filtering software by governmental bodies such as public libraries or school districts. The fear is that in using the software, the libraries and school put themselves in the position of allowing the filter to act as a censor.

Critics of filtering software make two main points. First, school districts and public libraries need to be aware of how filtering works — that it blocks out any number of legitimate sites and, conversely, often fails to block “indecent” sites. Second, particularly for schools, using filters may be at the expense of the more educationally sound practice of teaching kids how to responsibly use and evaluate the Internet. (This article focuses on filtering software; an equally important issue for school districts is developing “Appropriate Use Policies” that govern a range of Internet issues, from student use of e-mail, to recreational versus educational use of the Internet at school, to disciplinary actions when Internet policies are violated. One of the most important issues is teaching children safety issues on the Internet — for example, that they should never give out their name, phone number, or address to strangers on the net.)

Most Popular Filters

Some of the major filtering software products are CYBERsitter, Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny, BESS, X-Stop, SmartFilter and SafeSurf. The software is produced by private companies which, in order to protect and sell their product, don’t want to be too specific about how the software works or release a list of what sites are blocked.

But just suppose a librarian or school official did get a copy of the blacklist. They probably wouldn’t have time to evalute it thoroughly. Cyber Patrol claims to have over 50,000 blocked entries, and each entry can ban as little as one web page or as much as an entire domain. At a minute per entry, that’s more than 100 workdays just to give a cursory inspection, according to Finkelstein of The Censorware Project. A few minutes of math calculations “should immediately destroy the myth that a librarian or schoolteacher can look over a product and make more than insignificant adjustments for his or her own values,” Finkelstein argues.

As a result, schools and libraries have to take on faith that the filtering company is doing a good job. That faith may be misplaced, however.

A growing number of organizations are investigating and exposing how filtering software works. One such group is the cyber-organization Peacefire: Youth Alliance Against Internet Censorship. The group was founded in August 1996 to represent students’ and minors’ interests in the debate over freedom of speech on the Internet. Full membership is limited to people under 21. On its web site, Peacefire notes: “There were very few people in mid-1996 speaking out against blocking software programs like CYBERsitter and Cyber Patrol, because most adults would not be affected by the proliferation of these programs.” (Anyone interested in not only filtering software but the power of youth organizing should check out Peacefire’s site:

Peacefire maintains a list of some of the sites blocked by various filters. One of the more far-reaching filtering programs appears to be CYBERsitter, which has been marketed in part by the religious right organization Focus on the Family. In its options for filtering, CYBERsitter includes the categories, “advocating illegal/radical activities” and “gay/lesbian activities.”

Some of the sites that have been blocked by CYBERsitter include:

  • The National Organization for Women.
  • The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
  • Yahoo web search for “gay rights.”
  • The Peacefire web site.

CYBERsitter apparently was upset with Peacefire because of its reporting on blocked sites. CYBERsitter even went to Peacefire’s Internet provider, Media3, and threatened to block the pages of all the other domain names on the Media3 server if Peacefire were not removed from the server, according to an article in the Dec. 6, 1996, WIRED News. Media3 threatened legal action if CYBERsitter followed through on its threats.

One of the first articles to blow the whistle on filtering programs was the CyberWire Dispatch article “Keys to the Kingdom“. “CYBERSitter doesn’t hide the fact that they’re trying to enforce a moral code,” according to the article. When CYBERsitter CEO Brian Milburn was asked about the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) concern that its site was blocked, he responded, “If NOW doesn’t like it, tough … We have not and will not bow to any pressure from any organization that disagrees with our philosophy.”

Other software filtering companies may be less overtly political but they nonetheless have blocked a range of worthwhile pages. Take Cyber Patrol. According to Peacefire, sites and newsgroups that have been blocked by Cyber Patrol include:

  • The MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression.
  • Planned Parenthood.
  • Nizkor, a Holocaust remembrance page.
  • Envirolink, a clearinghouse of environmental information on the Internet.
  • Mother Jones magazine online.
  • The soc.feminism newsgroup.
  • The AOL Sucks web site (“Why American On Line Sucks.”)

(If you want to check out these filtering programs, go to their websites. For CYBERsitter it’s; for Cyber Patrol it’s The Cyber Patrol logo is telling: It consists of a police-type badge and the slogan: “To Surf and Protect.”)

CyberWire Dispatch calls Cyber Patrol “easily the largest and most extensive smut-blocker. It assigns each undesirable web site to at least one and often multiple categories that range from ‘violence/profanity’ to ‘sexual acts,’ ‘drugs and drug culture,’ and ‘gross depictions.'” What, one might ask, constitutes “gross depictions?” One answer is, animal rights pages — such as a blocked page which shows syphilis-infected monkeys.

Wallace, of The Ethical Spectacle, points out the tendency of filters to block based on political content. His magazine — which he describes as “a sober, intellectual, rather dry publication, without prurient photographs or stories, which aspires to be an electronic equivalent of print magazines like The Nation, The National Review, or The Atlantic — has been blocked by seven censorware products. “And those are only the ones I know about,” he says.

Finkelstein of The Censorware Project notes that CyberPatrol blocked his site on Internet Labeling and Rating Systems (part of the MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression,, under categories ranging from Full Nudity to Militant/Extreme to Satanic/Cult.

Blocking worthwhile pages is only part of the problem. If the goal is protecting children from pornography, many of the filtering softwares don’t block what should be blocked. An article in the Focus on the Family magazine noted that Consumer Reports tested four of the biggest Internet filters. “The results were discouraging,” according to Focus on the Family. “After selecting 22 ‘easy-to-find’ objectionable Web sites, technical experts attempted to log onto those sites with the blocking software running. SurfWatch tested the best, with only four sites getting past the software. Cyber Patrol let six sites slip through, CYBERsitter missed eight, and Net Nanny let all 22 through.”

The Focus on the Family article also complained that filtering software had blocked “Christian videos that deal with sexuality.”

Who Holds the Power?

One of the unanswered questions about filtering software is: who decides and how? Filtering software companies make it seem that decisions are being carefully made by reasonable people whose only goal is protecting children. But in reality, filtering software generally relies on scanning a site’s keywords or its URL, rather than actually looking at a site. That is why, for example, if a filtering software is looking to block anything with the word “sex,” it will potentially eliminate sites about Middlesex, England or the poetry of Anne Sexton.

The article “Keys to the Kingdom” notes that Cyber Patrol doesn’t even store the complete URL for blocking and instead abbreviates the last three characters. Thus, for instance, Shawn Knight had an occult resources page, located at Carnegie Mellon University, and the final coding for his site began with the letters “sha.” Cyber Patrol blocked 23 other accounts at Carnegie Mellon University with “sha” as the first three letters of the final coding — including Derrick “Shadow” Brasherr’s web page on Pittsburgh radio stations. When the filter blocked the “CyberOS” gay video available through the Internet Service Provider, it also blocked 17 other sites at the server that started with “cyb” — including a site billed as the first “Cyber High School.”

The sheer immensity of the web — a recent study in the journal Science estimates there are roughly 320 million separate web pages — makes human evaluation of web pages impossible, according to Internet experts. Sims of The Censorware Project notes that Digital Equipment Corporation’s search engine AltaVista — perhaps the fastest search engine, with a bandwidth so powerful it could support 87 million phone lines — adds a new page in a fraction of a second and still only has about 28% of the web in its database. “No censorware company has more than a tiny fraction of AltaVista’s bandwidth,” Sims notes. “No censorware company has more than fraction of the hardware, or technical expertise, of the people at Digital Equipment Corporation. And supposedly these pages are viewed by a human, taking a minute or more instead of a split second?”

It is “mathematically impossible to ‘view’ any significant portion of the web,” according to Sims.

‘Family-Friendly’ Search Engines

Ever on the prowl for a new product or gimmick to sell to parents and schools, computer software companies are developing “family friendly search engines.” If filtering can be compared to taking books out of the library and storing them in an inaccessible back room, “family friendly search engines” are akin to taking a student to the Library of Congress but not letting them use the card catalog.

What is being billed as “the world’s first family friendly Internet search site” was released this past October by Net Shepherd and AltaVista and called Net Shepherd Family Search. According to Net Shepherd’s web site, the search engine filters out web sites “judged by an independent panel of demographically appropriate Internet users, to be inappropriate and/or objectionable to the average user families.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington-D.C-based public interest research center established in 1994, has released a study on Net Shepherd’s Family Search engine. In the study, it conducted 100 searches using AltaVista, a traditional search engine, and Net Shepherd’s Family Search. Requests ranged from phrases such as “American Red Cross,” to the “San Diego Zoo,” to the “Smithsonian Institution,” to potentially controversial topics such as the “Bill of Rights,” “Christianity” and “eating disorders.”

“In every case in our sample, we found that the family-friendly search engine prevented us from obtaining access to almost 90% of the materials on the Internet containing the relevant search terms,” according to EPIC. “We further found that in many cases, the search service denied access to 99% of the material that would otherwise be available without the filters.” For example:

  • The non-filtered search for “NAACP” listed 4,000 documents. The Family search produced 15 documents.
  • The non-filtered search for “Thomas Edison” came up with 11,552 documents. On Family Search: nine.
  • And poor Dr. Seuss. Only eight of the 2,653 references on AltaVista relating to Dr. Seuss were available through Family Search — and one of them was a parody of a Dr. Seuss story using details from the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.

“While it is true that there is material available on the Internet that some will find legitimately objectionable, it is also clear that in some cases the proposed solutions may be worse than the actual problem,” EPIC noted. The most important task is for parents and teachers to take an active role in guiding children’s use of the Internet. As EPIC notes: “Helping children tell right from wrong is not something that should be left to computer software or search engines.”

Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools.