APR 2001


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 around".

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 libraries.

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.


Ray-Taylor’s 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 ectc.aaps.k12.mi.us/instruction/report.html Back

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 controversy.

"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 blocking."

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.Back

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 "Illegal/Questionable".

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? Back

by 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 blacklisted.

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, exactly.

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.Back

Amnesty International 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 and/or Violence".

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 Filters".

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.Back

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 targeted against.

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 silence.Back

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 surf?Back

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 deployed.

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 appointed".

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.Back

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 single paperback.

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 documents.

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. Back


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