A Letter to the Chairman of the FCC

A Letter to Chairman Powell of the FCC

by The Censorware Project press@censorware.net

Dear Chairman Powell:

               Congratulations on your appointment as chairman of the FCC. We at the Censorware Project read your speeches with great interest, and find your view of the Internet, and of the agency's role, sympathetic. We hope you will act assertively to keep the FCC from intervening in Internet speech and will be loud and clear in representing your views to the President and Congress. Specifically, it is our hope that you will help to correct the tremendous mistake Congress made in passing the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and asking the FCC to manage it.

The Censorware Project is a small group of free speech advocates that formed three years ago to oppose the use of blocking software--censorware--in public libraries and schools. Our web site is at http://www.censorware.net. In a series of reports linked from that site on censorware products such as Bess, X-Stop and Smartfilter, we have conclusively shown that these products all block innocuous and socially useful sites. Among the amazing instances of over-blocking we found were a Quaker web site, the American Association of University Women, and the AIDS Quilt, all blocked by X-Stop; a Liza Minelli web page, blocked by Websense; a teen soccer page, blocked by Cyberpatrol; and the list goes on, adding up to hundreds of inappropriately blocked sites we identified. And these are just the ones we have found. Since these companies all keep the contents of their blacklists a deep secret, no-one--and certainly not the librarians and school administrators asked to use the software--can say what else is blacklisted.

             We have heard numerous complaints, for example, from schools using the Bess software that older students asked to do research assignments on AIDS, teen pregnancy, or drug use are blocked from reading the sites they need to do their homework.  These products often run on a single server serving an entire school district, imposing a “one size fits all” philosophy—seventeen year olds are exposed only to that speech deemed appropriate for eight year olds. In such cases, turning the censorware off so that a single student can visit a needed site turns it off for the entire district--something the systems administrators are reluctant to do. We have heard a number of school and library administrators complain that, because it blocks protected material their users need, and is difficult or impossible to turn off, censorware makes the Internet too much of a pain in the neck to use.

            When the Censorware Project turned its attention to underblocking, we also discovered that censorware products not surprisingly let through tremendous amounts of hard core pornography. The sheer size of the web (according to Science Magazine, it had already reached  800 million documents by early 1999) makes it impossible for the small human staff of any censorware company to review more than a small percentage of the web’s  contents. Moreover, no "artificial intelligence" software has yet been invented that can make the very subjective determination of whether content is socially useful or is harmful to minors.

            Consumer Reports issued a review of censorware last week that confirmed our findings (http://www.consumerreports.org/Special/ConsumerInterest/Reports/0103fil0.html).  According to the report, all the censorware products tested let through about twenty percent of hardcore material, while at least two blocked twenty percent of serious sites on controversial topics.  Consumer Reports has no First Amendment axe to grind—the organization’s sole concern is whether things work or not. Their review confirmed our conclusion: Censorware just does not work!


In a recent New York Times article, you were quoted as saying, “I don't believe that government should be your nanny.” Based on this, we believe that you would agree that government, using the E-Rate as a stick, should not compel libraries and schools to purchase “Net Nanny” and other censorware products. 

Were you aware that your agency recommends the use of censorware by parents, even naming specific products? Check out “Browsing the Internet Safely: Software Filters” at  http://www.fcc.gov/parents_information/ . This page was obviously written by someone who had not taken a close look at the functioning of this software, or the principles of the companies which distribute it. One of the products mentioned on the FCC page, Cybersitter, has a fundamentalist philosophy, blocking the National Organization for Women as a “radical lesbian” page. The FCC’s posting of this software filter page is analogous to the FTC naming specific brands of car-seats on its web site—and unwittingly naming a brand which caused frequent fatal accidents. I am sure you would acknowledge that the FCC has no role whatever in telling parents how to raise their children.  We hope that one of your first actions will be to delete this page from the FCC site.


Please use your influence as FCC Chairman to urge Congress to repeal CIPA as ill-considered legislation, and to free the FCC from managing the forced implementation of a technology that is wildly ineffective in addressing CIPA’s goals.


Thanks for listening. If your actions as FCC Chairman are consistent with your expressed views, we expect to see a welcome era of common sense, and a deliberate avoidance of harm, in the agency’s dealings with the Internet.


                                                Sincerely yours,



                                                Jonathan Wallace

                                                Censorware Project member