ERROR! CENSORWARE DOES NOT COMPUTE!
by Henry Edward Hardy
Censorware—automated censorship by "internet
filtering" machines—is spreading to our schools. More than a year has passed
since Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rossi Ray-Taylor declared in
response to a specific controversy, "The question is not if we
will filter. The question is when and how we will filter."
This policy of Ray-Taylor, to impose
computerized censorship in the schools, has been opposed by
students, faculty & head computer administrators, and even
by Ray-Taylor’s handpicked censorware-selection committee, as
well as parents.
In the face of such strong reservations,
Ray-Taylor is forging ahead, still without any public hearings or public debate
before the school board. In December the school district announced that the
field of censorware programs had been narrowed to two finalists: "Websense" and
"BESS". Websense has recently been tested locally, to awful reviews.
[See My Date With the Censor)
Meanwhile, "BESS" has been subject to
scathing nationwide criticism. Generally, censorware policies
are expensive, ineffective, and perhaps unenforceable. As John
Gilmore famously said, "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes
There are also concerns about privacy and
anonymity—anyone accessing the prohibited or controversial material is subject
to having their activity logged and profiled, and the data sold, for instance,
to the US Department of Defense. And these problems extend not
only to the schools but also to other public institutions such as
Somehow the fact that the internet is
involved seems to obscure the underlying fact of the terrifying attack underway
here against the US Constitution. With Howard Stern, Sally
Jesse Raphael, and Jerry Springer on daytime broadcast TV, it certainly isn’t
clear what internet censorship is allegedly protecting children against. Except
an understanding of the First Amendment, perhaps.
To date, Ray-Taylor has made no public retraction of her rush
to judgment, although in a recent email to a reporter she evinced a newfound
willingness to consider "other solutions". Although a year has elapsed since she
announced her intentions, there have apparently been no public hearings on the
subject and there has been little or no public debate before the school board on
the issue. So Ray-Taylor’s policy blunder still needs to be exposed, and the
public still needs to come together to block its implementation.
More interviews and information including links to
anti-censorship websites can be found at ocean.ic.net.
See also i Want MY CTN! for proposed city censorship of
the community TV network.
policy is a response to a controversy at King School in October 1999.
Through a misspelling, several elementary students accessed a "Haloweeen"
(sic) site on the internet which, in the words of the Ann Arbor News,
"features a human skull and a fountain of blood." The site reportedly also
included "a crude sexual joke … information on practicing witchcraft and … a
section on ‘Vampire Femmes’ with photographs of naked women". (Since the
controversial site appears to be no longer on the internet, there seems
little chance of another child accidentally accessing it in the future,
censorware or none.) Back
|More than 300
high school students petitioned against the censorware, expressing their
concern that sites dealing with such subjects as breast cancer,
homosexuality and reproductive health would be interdicted by the
computerized censor. Back
Instructional Technology Coordinator Deb
Katz has publicly criticized Ray-Taylor’s dictate, saying that what is
needed is more adult supervision rather than software censorship. She
emphasizes that filters can give a "false sense of security".
Howard Moscowitz, Director of Information Technology for
the district, also criticizes censorware. He emphasizes that any "filtering"
service will do harm by blocking legitimate and non-objectionable as well as
objectionable sites. He cites online information on breast cancer as one
such example. Back
Ray-Taylor set up her "Web Filtering
Committee"—Orwellian Newspeak for Web Censoring Commissars—to recommend how
to implement the censorship, effectively rubber-stamping her decision to
impose "filtering". In April, 2000, the committee submitted its report.
Despite the fact that they were tasked only to recommend how to censor, the
committee insisted in beginning their report with an expression of doubt
about the wisdom and desirability of the entire procedure: "[T]he web
filtering committee has strong reservations about implementing filtering at
this time. It is the opinion of the committee that some other less invasive
and less costly measures should be put in place first."
The report is available online at
One parent who served on the "internet
filter committee" has spoken out against the imposition of filtering at this
time. Software Engineer and longtime Ann Arbor resident Tim Berla objected
to a number of issues regarding both the policy and the way in which the
Superintendent has attempted to manipulate the review process.
Berla said of the committee, "The thing I objected to
most was that the district had no data." Berla said that the district was
able to provide no data about the number or nature of any alleged incidents
which would be addressed by filtering. It was never established that
censorware would have addressed the site involved in the King school
"There is a class of websites [such] that if only they
could be blocked nobody would object," Berla said. "The problem is that
there are millions of sites that are changing all the time and no one
company has the resources to make specific decisions about each one and
those [decisions] they do make are fallible."
Berla said that, "A normal way to filter is based on
‘dirty words’. It will get ‘Dick Cheney’ or ‘breast cancer’."
Filtering would create a false sense of security, said
Berla. "Howard [Moscowitz] made it perfectly clear that some enterprising
teenager is going to find a way to get around them."
Berla said that buying a censorware program was
essentially buying a black box with no accountability to the citizens.
"Whenever you hook up a filter you really don’t know what you’ve got. You
can’t check every site and the companies don’t make available what they’re
The school system should be doing more to encourage
appropriate use of the internet rather than trying to punish and censor
"inappropriate" use, says Berla. He disagrees with the system’s ban on
student email. "My opinion is that email represents the greatest advance in
teaching kids to write," said Berla. "Its a way for kids to see writing as a
way for kids to communicate. From my perspective the district should give
every student an email account... both in terms of learning to read and
write and in terms of being an electronic citizen."
Berla said that he did not use a censorware program at
home and did not know of any parents who do. "I want my kids to make their
decisions based on the widest possible spectrum of ideas and make up their
own mind and not just based on what is acceptable to me. All have hotmail
accounts. I haven’t had any problem at all."
He stressed the importance of gathering "baseline data" about alleged
incidents of violations of the existing Acceptable Use Policy before
charging blindly into a censorware "solution" without a defined problem.
Berla said that a continuing review of any censorware would be imperative
and that this could only be meaningful if there was a statistically valid
set of data taken for several years before the censorware was imposed..
Members of the community were invited to
"test" the software at several scheduled sessions in January, 2001.
One session which was attended by a reporter proved to be
rather un-enlightening. The room in which the session was scheduled was in
use by another adult education class, and no computer was available for the
first hour of the announced two hour "test". No staff person was available
to answer questions during the first hour, and no literature on the
censorware being tested was made available. The settings being used on the
software being tested were not available, and the detailed list of sites
being censored was not (and is not) available for review.
The results of the "public test" of the Websense
censorware were hardly encouraging. One site in Yahoo’s listings on
reproductive health was blocked, while an adjacent site with similar
information was not blocked. One Kid Rock site with lyrics was blocked as
"tasteless", while another site with the same lyrics was not. The list of
what sites were blocked was not made available.
According to information provided by Katz, the Websense
program had been configured to censor the following categories: Violence,
Tasteless, Racism/Hate, Adult Material, Adult Content, Nudity, Sex,
Gambling, and Illegal/Questionable. She said that this configuration made
the internet "totally unusable". Subsequently the system was reconfigured
for the test to filter only "Adult Material", "Tasteless", and
Why is tasteless material worse than racist material? Why
is adult material worse than adult content, nudity and sex? Why is
questionable material worse than violent material? Which sites are blocked
under each category? What opportunity is there for the web site owners to be
informed of, and to challenge, this censorship?.
MY DATE WITH THE CENSORby Luis Vasquez
When the Ann Arbor School District offered a
demonstration of "filtering" (i.e., censoring) software, I could not turn
down the opportunity. As a parent of 3 children in the Ann Arbor Public
Schools, I knew that implementation of censorware on the School District’s
computers would have an impact on their lives and education. Prior to the
demo, I had never seen censorware in action, and I was unfamiliar with
exactly how they work. I took along my 11 year old son, Simon, so that he
could suggest some websites he was interested in looking at, and to see
which of those websites the censorware would block.
Simon and I surfed under the "guidance" of Websense, one
of two web censors the Ann Arbor School District has been considering for
purchase and installation. Although the Ann Arbor News had an article
reporting when and where the demo would take place, we were two of only
three people to show up to test the software that day. The Technical
Coordinator for the Ann Arbor School District, Deborah Katz, stated that not
many people had come in to test the "filtering" software, and that statement
concerned me. If this kind of program can be implemented in the Ann Arbor
schools without much public discourse or fanfare, then we as families and as
a democratic society are in great danger. It makes me wonder why more
citizens are not alarmed that their rights, and their children’s rights of
access to accurate information, are being incrementally taken away, under
the guise of "saving the children".
As my son and I tested the Websense "filter", we
discovered sites that we were prevented from accessing, such as "Kid Rock -
The Official Site". The Websense message that appeared on the computer
screen said that access was denied because the site was deemed "Tasteless".
Other Kid Rock sites could be accessed, however. What burns me up about this
is, not only are our kids being told what they can or cannot see, hear, or
read, they are now being told "how" to think, and what to think, about web
content. Most of the filtering software blacklists are unavailable to the
public, said Katz, and during the demonstrations the software was set to
remove minimal content. Other sites blocked from access during our visit
were madtv.com, and various sites related to the television program South
Park. We were able to view some sites which had information about human
sexuality, such as safersex.org, but there was not enough time to do an
exhaustive search to see what other sites with good information were
When I asked my son what he thought of blocking software, he said to me
"What if we want to learn about our bodies?". Precisely.
My research into the subject of internet censorship is
starting to confirm some of my worst fears about where our society is
headed. For instance, a student in Idaho was prevented from viewing The
Starr Report, an official government document which cost US taxpayers over
$50 million to produce. I guess it would raise too many questions about
former President Clinton’s penis, or make children wonder what fellatio is,
The main concern I have about this issue is that, in
trying to prevent "bad" material from being observed by kids, too much
"good" material will be blocked from access. My fear is that it is an
unknown, unelected group of individuals who get to decide what is "bad" or
"good", and that they are unwilling to share their criteria.
I think that a better approach is for the Ann Arbor Schools to stick with
the current computer use policy. If there are not enough teachers around to
monitor internet usage by students, and preferably, to guide children
towards positive and useful information, then it really is a matter of
teacher/student ratios that can be addressed by hiring more teachers..
reviewed Bess along with other censorware programs in a December, 2000
report titled: "Amnesty Intercepted: Global human rights groups blocked by
Web Censoring software’. (http://peacefire.org/amnesty-intercepted/) Among
the sites Amnesty found to be blocked by Bess at that time included:
TamilRights.org, Casa Alianza, Friends of Sean Sellers, The International
Coptic Congress, ArtDogs.com, and Vega.net.
Another recent report by the
anti-censorship group Peacefire, titled, "Blind Ballots: Web Sites of U.S.
Political Candidates Censored by Censorware" (http://peacefire.org/blind-ballots/)
discloses a number of Congressional sites blocked by Bess during the recent
campaign. These included Republican candidates Robert Canales (34rth
District, California), Bob Levy (District 18-Texas), Stephen A . Urban (11th
District, Pennsylvania), Arneze Washington (9th District, California), and
Kathy Williamson (32nd District, California). Also blocked were Brian Pedigo
(D-2nd District, Kentucky) and Ed Markey. The report notes that Markey was
an incumbent, had served in office for more than 20 years, and was blocked
under the Bess "minimal filtering" (least restrictive) setting, which means
that Markey’s site was evidently categorized as "Hate, Illegal, Pornography
Republican candidate Jeffery Pollock,
running for the 3rd Congressional District seat in Oregon, reportedly had
the following reaction when informed that his own website, which advocated
"filtering", had itself been blocked by the widely used censorware program,
Cyberpatrol: "I just went back to my website to re-read what I wrote nine
months ago. That will be gone. I am incensed with what is going on here."
The following sentence was removed from his website the next day:"We should
demand that all public schools and libraries install and configure Internet
Another paper reviewing Bess ("Bess the Internet Retriever
Examined’, http://peacefire.org/censorware/BESS/) listed other sites which
have been blocked by BESS, including sites dedicated to prisoner rights, gay
and lesbian issues, breast cancer information, information on eating
disorders, and contraceptive information..
According to information provided by
Deborah Katz, both censorware programs under consideration are "proxy
servers". This means that the program resides on a remote server and
essentially intercepts the communications of the internet users it is
There are a couple of problems with this. First, as a
practical matter, these services are very expensive and require a yearly fee
($27,000 per year for WebSense, $30,000 per year for BESS). The rationale
for this isn’t clear as the school system could just as well obtain a
commercial copy of Linux for $50 and install their own proxy server which
would be under their control. Of course, a locally run proxy server would be
subject to Freedom of Information and other citizen requests for
information; presumably citizens and web site owners would be able to obtain
and review the list of blocked sites. This is not possible with the secret
blacklists maintained by BESS and WebSense.
It is fairly trivial to bypass proxy servers such as
WebSense and BESS especially since Websense censors access to web pages and
web-based chat rooms but not email or USENET newsgroups, and BESS attempts
to censor web pages and newsgroups but not email or chat rooms. Students
will quickly find ways around these programs using FTP, FSP, IRC, ICQ,
email, and other uncensored internet services. The more adventurous might
also venture to use IP redirection, IP packet encapsulation, packet
fragmentation, encryption, translation services, other proxy servers,
mailing lists, steganography, a "pig-latinizing" program which was recently
posted, etc., etc.
But this brings us to an interesting point. It is generally admitted that
these censorware "solutions" are likely to be inequitable and ineffective.
However, there has apparently been no discussion of what the consequences of
intentionally or unintentionally violating this policy would be. Would this
new "policy" have triggered a literal "witch-hunt" against the substitute
teacher in the room at King School, or worse, criminal felony charges such
as felony "Unauthorized Access to a Computer" against third-graders? The
recent fad of "Zero Tolerance" (and "Zero Freedom") policies in schools
leads one to wonder what the consequences will be for the
"thought-criminals" who are caught breaking the mechanical censor’s code of
The publishers and distributors of the
BESS software recently announced their decision to stop selling information
collected from monitoring students’ internet activity to clients such as the
US Department of Defense. "It is not the purpose of the public schools to
abet corporations that spy on the web browsing of schoolchildren," said Gary
Ruskin of the group Commercial Alert.
"Prior to the news articles that were recently published,
we believed that Class Clicks was a commonly used market research service",
Pentagon official W. S. Sellman wrote in a letter to Ruskin. "Upon further
investigation, we realized that it is a new concept. At this point, we are
delaying our decision about participating in Class Clicks indefinitely."
Still, why is the Pentagon interested in keeping track of where our kids
All schools and libraries are being
pressured to impose "voluntary" censorship by means of a perfidious piece of
legislation passed in the lame duck session of Congress last year. Titled
the "Child Internet Protection Act" the bill denies certain types of funds
to schools and libraries which provide internet access and which do not have
an automated censorship program in place or in the process of being
The ACLU has vowed to fight the so-called "Child Internet
Protection Act" or "McCain rider". "This is the first time since the
development of the local, free public library in the 19th century that the
federal government has sought to require censorship in every single town and
hamlet in America," said Chris Hansen, ACLU Senior Staff Attorney. "More
than 100 years of local control of libraries and the strong tradition of
allowing adults to decide for themselves what they want to read is being
casually set aside."
Congress rejected the recommendations of its own
commission which it had formed to study the issue of censorware. "There was
an Alice in Wonderland quality to this debate," said Marvin Johnson, a
Legislative Counsel with the ACLU’s Washington National Office. "With its
vote, Congress rejected the advice it asked for from the panel it
Congress has gone forward with yet another attempt to censor the internet
despite recent court decisions striking down key parts of the so-called
"Communications Decency Act" and "Child Online Protection Act." Congress
also chose to disregard the court decision in Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of
Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, which recently found that mandatory
use of internet censorware for library patrons was unconstitutional..
To take a case in point, how many
readers have realized that printed textbooks are obsolete? On a single Palm
Pilot or Visor one can store the equivalent of 10 printed textbooks (minus
the pictures) and have room for summary editions of the New York Times and
30 other newspapers. Not to mention email, cell phone, fax, and digital
camera and wireless internet access on the same small device, smaller than a
Given that this is so, imagine that in the future, every school textbook
must be submitted to an anonymous electronic censor before it can be read.
Imagine that a machine was empowered to read and censor all your personal
mail. Imagine that writings by controversial authors, whether it be Adolf
Hitler or Nelson Mandela, are no longer available in schools and libraries.
No more "Huckleberry Finn" ("Nigger Jim"). No more Shakespeare ("violence,
inappropriate conduct"). No more Emma Goldman ("terrorist"). Not to mention
Hunter S. Thompson, Lee Miller, Abbie Hoffman, James Joyce, Josephine Baker,
Vladimir Nabokov, Anais Nin, D. H. Lawrence, Lenny Bruce, Aldous Huxley, Run
DMC, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg.. Back
If it is OK to block a site giving
information on witchcraft because of sexual content, is it also OK on the
same grounds to censor out by computer large portions of the Bible such as
the entire Song of Solomon and the last third of the Book of Judges?
Bear in mind that the First Amendment specifically exists
to protect the right of people to say and portray things which other people
do not want to hear or see, and, perhaps more to the point, do not want
others to be able to hear or see. In the case of the classified but leaked
Pentagon Papers, the New York Times and Washington Post successfully sued
the US Government which was trying to censor the publication of these
But with this new kind of censorship, even the big corporate media would
be hard pressed to sue every school district and library in the country,
even if they did somehow become aware that a story had been censored. .
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