May 16, 1999
Hon. William E. Kennard, Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554
Dear Mr. Chairman:
The FCC decision to post a section on "Browsing the Internet Safely: Software Filters" is highly inappropriate. We hope you will reconsider the necessity of this entire section of the webpage, or at the very least remove what amounts to product endorsements and add links to sites that expose their inherent flaws. To do otherwise will mislead parents into thinking - despite your brief disclaimer - that the problem of "browsing the internet safely" can be wholly and easily solved by purchasing a piece of software.
The Censorware Project (http://censorware.org) is an organization founded to oppose the use of such software in government institutions and to provide consumers with information about the flaws in these products. We were particularly shocked by the FCC's recommendation of censorware products for several reasons.
First, as the page itself notes, the FCC has no jurisdiction whatever over the Internet. As the Supreme Court established for once and for all in Reno v. ACLU, the Net is not a scarce resource and is therefore entitled to the same extensive First Amendment protection as print. Since the FCC's jurisdiction over broadcast is based on the rationale of "spectrum scarcity", which does not exist as pertains to the Internet, the FCC cannot have any imaginable grounds for involvement with Internet content. We understand that "many parents have asked for help." But it would not be the FCC's place to report on how parents may prevent their children from reading pornographic novels; the decision in Reno v. ACLU means it is just as inappropriate for you to evaluate home censorship of the internet.
Second, each of the products you list, and to whose web pages you link, blacklist material which is not "harmful to minors" by any legal definition. Cybersitter in particular is a product with a far right bias, which blocks the National Organization for Women as a "radical lesbian" site. Listing Cybersitter on your page is tantamount to suggesting that citizens turn to the Christian Coalition for advice on guiding their child's reading.
Third, each of these blacklists is negligently compiled, meaning that the companies violate the promises they make (which you repeat on your page) to engage in a careful review of every site before adding it to the blacklist. In its several reports, The Censorware Project has offered hundreds of examples of sites blacklisted by these censorware products which cannot possibly have been looked at by a human being. A classic example was the Maple Soccer youth sports site, which repeatedly turned up on the Cyberpatrol blacklist after first being publicized by one of our reports. In an article in the Wall Street Journal last week, one of our members, James Tyre, disclosed the existence of two domains which contain no content whatever yet are blocked by Surfwatch. Accidental blacklisting occurs when a censorware publisher's "spider" (software which searches for keywords) finds suspicious text in a non-pornographic context (eg, "twelve year old girls" on a soccer league page.) The hundreds of examples we have found establish beyond any doubt that the censorware companies do not inspect every site they block.
Fourth, these products do not, and cannot possibly, achieve their stated goals. The amount of content on the Web is too huge, and the staffs of these companies far too small, to block more than a small percentage of the hardcore pornography on the Net. By recommending the use of censorware, you are recommending a placebo. Your page states, "While filtering software is a useful parental tool, it is no substitute for active involvement with children who use the Internet." The second statement--that censorware is no substitute for parental supervision--is correct. The first, that it is a useful parental tool, is questionable, given the blacklisting of benign content while much hardcore porn goes unblocked.
Fifth, your page makes no mention of the fact that serious criticisms have been leveled at the efficacy of censorware projects and the truth of the marketing claims made about them. The FCC is therefore in a position of recommending controversial and questionable products to the American people.
Sixth, we believe that it is wrong for the FCC to recommend particular commercial products. This is especially harmful since it appears that, like many consumers, you are unaware of their flaws. These products are notorious for outrageous and impossible marketing claims which you have repeated as if they were reality. These products are represented as doing a job which is in fact impossible to do: the scouring of the entire Internet, which contains an overwhelmingly large quantity of dynamically changing information.
Seventh, you fail to mention that the use of censorware products has been found unconstitutional (for many of the reasons we give here) in public libraries, in the case of Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees. You have been personally quoted as advocating that E-rate funding be conditioned on the installation of censorware. We believe that such a requirement would be unconstitutional under the Loudoun precedent, and we hope that the FCC will not support such legislation.
Again, it is our request that the FCC remove the reference to censorware from its site, for the reasons given here.
Very truly yours,
The Censorware Project