Sex, Lies and Censorware

By James S. Tyre

Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a brief item on how SurfWatch had been caught banning newly-registered domain names as "Sexually Explicit" even though the sites did not have, and never had, any content at all, let alone content which even arguably was sexually explicit. Although the piece only mentioned a few examples (including, a domain name I registered as a lark), it serves as a microcosm of some of the problems with censorware products themselves and the claims made by their vendors and supporters. I make no mountains from molehills here — the ban of my content-free domain caused no great damage to me, or to anyone else — but the WSJ piece, particularly one of its quotes, is a useful jumping-off point for some general criticisms of censorware products, practices and apologists which I’ve studied for a number of years.

First, the WSJ piece, in its entirety:

The Wall Street Journal
May 6, 1999
Page B4

EXPLETIVE DELETED SurfWatch, an Internet-filtering company that aims toprotect children from online pornography and violence, boasts that it onlyblocks objectionable sites after "thoughtful analysis" by its staff. This leftJames Tyre, a Pasadena lawyer and Internet activist opposed to filtering, morethan a little bemused when SurfWatch blocked his newly registered site, for "sexually explicit content." The main problem Mr.Tyre’s site was and remains totally blank but for an innocuous banner ad. SurfWatch says its software most likely confused Mr. Tyre’s site with apornography site that shares the same numerical Internet protocol address in asetup called "virtual hosting." SurfWatch has since unblocked Mr. Tyre’s site,but others haven’t been so lucky. Martin Minow, a silicon valley programmer,recently discovered that his new site, was also blocked bySurfWatch for alleged explicit content. The site bears only the words, "Thissite is under construction." Theresa Marcroft, director of marketing forSurfWatch, concedes that the company’s software tends to block even innocuousvirtually hosted sites if they are added to an Internet address that has beenpreviously blocked, although she notes that the company responds quickly tounblock clean sites once it knows about them. "We’re doing our best," shesays. "This is such a nit in the overall objective of keeping kids away fromthe objectionable stuff."

Compiled by Nicole Harris and Ann Grimes from staff reports.

The key is this concession: "Theresa Marcroft, director of marketing for SurfWatch, concedes that the company’s software tends to block even innocuous virtually hosted sites if they are added to an Internet address that has been previously blocked, although she notes that the company responds quickly to unblock clean sites once it knows about them." Compare that to SurfWatch’s "official" statement about how it decides what should or should not be banned:

Evaluating against established criteria
Before adding any site to our database, each site 'candidate' is reviewed by a SurfWatch Content Specialist. Deciphering the gray areas is not something that we trust to technology; it requires thought and sometimes discussion. We use technology to help find site candidates, but rely on thoughtful analysis for the final decision. Before any site or word pattern is added to the database, it is reviewed for context of use on the Web -- how is it being used, what other types of content might be restricted if this is blocked. We review the impact that each word or site block will have once implemented in our filters.

It would be difficult to imagine two more opposite views of the facts, particularly coming from the same company. The SurfWatch webpage says that everything is subjected to "thoughtful analysis" before being banned, but when some seemingly trivial examples proved the falsity of that assertion, Marcroft more candidly admitted that SurfWatch does delegate many banning decisions to its flawed software, with no human review at all. Of course, SurfWatch has not changed the claim on its webpage, even after Marcroft’s concession, and I have no expectation that it will any time soon. No one will remember what Marcroft said, and SurfWatch will continue to mislead.

This sort of dissembling is common to many of the censorware vendors, but one could argue that it is particularly egregious in the case of SurfWatch for each of the following reasons, among others.

First, Filtering Facts, one of the most pro-censorware sites on the web, recommends SurfWatch not only for use in the home, but also for use in public libraries, where First Amendment considerations come into play. Apparently, Filtering Facts was blissfully ignorant of the fact that, for a time at least, SurfWatch wrongfully blocked Filtering Facts.

Second, less than a month ago, PC Magazine had this to say about SurfWatch: "solid reporting and management flexibility make it the best overall solution for creating an intelligent Internet policy."

Third, in a page put up by the Federal Communications Commission just last week, SurfWatch was one of only four censorware products mentioned by name, thus constituting at least an implied endorsement of SurfWatch by the FCC, its small-print disclaimer notwithstanding.

Fourth, most ironic, and for reasons never publicly disclosed, the Electronic Frontier Foundation chose to gratuitously include a quote from SurfWatch in its press release immediately following the Supreme Court’s landmark 1997 decision in Reno v. ACLU. Aside from the fact that the quote is legally wrong (it implies that the Supreme Court endorsed SurfWatch, when the Court in fact did not approve of any present censorware technology), the inclusion led some to believe that EFF, a supposed bastion of free speech rights on the net, somehow was approving of SurfWatch. Although I do not believe that EFF does endorse SurfWatch, it has never said to the contrary.

The Censorware Project and others have proven, time and again, that claims by the censorware vendors (most, if not all, not just SurfWatch) that all sites are human-reviewed before being banned are outright lies. We have given thousands of other examples, we have shown the mathematical and technological impossibility, yet the impossible claims persist, as does the persistence of some in repeating and hyping the impossible. How, after "thoughtful analysis", could pages which never had any content be banned under any category at all, let alone as "Sexually Explicit"? In the absence of a radical redefinition of "thought", the answer is obvious.

My personal example is but a small piece of the puzzle. But it is personal, and because it so starkly illustrates the point, I choose to write about it. All sites are not human-reviewed by the censorware vendors before being added to their secret blacklists, no matter what false claims the vendors make. Period, end of discussion. A wise man once said that there’s a sucker born every minute, but I hope that you’re not one of them.