What Censorware Means to Me

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

In the past year I have become an activist against the use of censorware in government institutions. Of the wide variety of issues pertaining to free speech which I might have chosen, how did I select this one? The answer is that I didn't go looking to pick a fight with censorware; it picked a fight with me.

I practiced law for ten years specializing in computer-related matters, then became an executive in a software business. For years I had day-dreamed about starting a newsletter on ethical issues as an avocation, but the cost seemed prohibitive; the newsletter I sent my law clients cost more than a dollar a copy, so it seemed impossible for me to reach a significant audience. I wasn't rich, and I couldn't afford it.

In 1994, the World Wide Web came along, and I learned HTML, the "mark-up" language in which Web pages are created. That happened to be the year I turned 40, and I made up a list of things I wanted to accomplish; finally starting my ethics newsletter was one of them. On January 1, 1995, issue number 1 of The Ethical Spectacle went on-line at http://www.spectacle.org. It included articles on campaign finance, Schindler's List, and making the net accessible for minorities. Thirty-seven more monthly issues have followed since then. The expense of publishing the Spectacle is under $100 a month, exclusive of my time.

A goal listed in the Spectacle mission statement: "Promoting freedom of speech, compassion, fairness and humility as the fundamental building blocks of private and public life."

Within a few days, people had found the Spectacle and were beginning to send me letters about it. I received a monthly status report from the company on whose server the Spectacle lives: more than 1,000 people had read it, more than 3,000, 8,000, 12,000....Today upwards of twenty to thirty thousand people read it every month. I have received email from readers in Sweden, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and many other countries. Publishers have requested and gotten permission to reprint my work in textbooks, law journals, and library science publications. Hundreds or thousands of other Web sites around the world link to mine, and many of them have republished my essays. Pieces I wrote have been passed around on Usenet and private mailing lists, leading more readers to the Spectacle.

During 1995, I had signed a contract with the publishing firm of Henry Holt, for a book on Internet censorship. Ironically, in that book, Sex, Laws and Cyberspace, published in early 1996, Mark Mangan and I recommended censorware as a private approach to avoiding pornography. Between the time that \we delivered the manuscript and its appearance in bookstores, censorware products began blocking the Spectacle. The first Web page of mine blocked by any product was the one dedicated to our book (http://www.spectacle.org/freespch). It was promptly barred by Cyberpatrol and later by I-Gear as well. Cyberpatrol has also blocked Nizkor, the leading Holocaust site, and Deja News, a Usenet archive used by programmers, attorneys, public relations consultants and others to obtain technical and business information.

Through the winter and spring of 1995, I prepared a special issue of the Spectacle for June of that year: a compilation of material about the Auschwitz death camp. Entitled "An Auschwitz Alphabet", it contains excerpts from works by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski, among other Auschwitz inmates. The "Alphabet" is located at http://www.spectacle.org/695/ausch.html. I had no idea of the impact this simple work would have: it accounts for more than 40% of Spectacle readers. Teachers all over the world have assigned it to their classes, and students from many countries have thanked me for creating it. Here are a few of the responses I have had.

From teachers:

"I just discovered your work online and am impressed! I am teaching a second level composition course thematically based on the Holocaust..."

"I just wanted to let you know that I found your site as I was gathering resources to teach a unit on the Holocaust to my middle school students....your site is going to be a fabulous resource."

"I am teaching summer school--U.S. history, 20th century--and found the Alphabet a powerful tool..."

From students:

"I am a tenth grade student in Australia, and I would like to congratulate you on this homepage."

"I am an Abilene Christian University student. Your information is wonderful and greatly appreciated."

"I'm in eighth grade and your page helped me the most..."

And here is the single most moving message I have ever received on the hhInternet, from a young Italian girl:

"I read all the books of Primo Levi, I hope for one best world. I'm only 14...I'm not a Jew but I will don't forget..."

If these students or teachers had been accessing the Net from computers with the Cybersitter or X-Stop products installed, they would never have been able to see An Auschwitz Alphabet. Cybersitter blocked the whole Spectacle site from about February 1997 until its most recent release. Cybersitter also blocked the National Organization for Women and Peacefire, a student free speech group. X-Stop blocked a portion of my site until recently, when (the ACLU informs me) it began blocking the entire Spectacle domain.

The July 1995 issue of the Spectacle, appearing the month after "An Auschwitz Alphabet", was entitled "Threats to the Net" and covered several of the cases we would describe in more detail in the book. (Its address is http://www.spectacle.org/795/). It contained discussions of the Jake Baker and Amateur Action cases, and the Communications Decency Act. The concluding essay was entitled, "We Don't Need New Laws." This issue of the Spectacle was quickly blocked by X-Stop's "felony load" version. This is the release which the publisher touts as blocking only obscene material, hence "felony". It is the same release which blocks the Quaker pages, the Aids Quilt and the American Association of University Women. Late in the year, I added a new section to the Spectacle site called "The Free Speech Dictionary" (http://www.spectacle.org/freespch/musm/). It was a series of brief definitions of free speech terms: "hate speech," "pervasiveness", "fighting words", "libel", "obscenity". The Dictionary was blocked by the Bess product.

Another product that will not allow access to much of the Spectacle is Web Chaperone, which is the only one of these products to block by keyword alone. I am told Web Chaperone cannot distinguish between an essay about Catharine MacKinnon's views on pornography and the "Hot Nude Women" page.

So that makes six, count 'em, six censorware products which block all or part of the Spectacle--a sober, intellectual, rather dry publication, without prurient photographs or stories, which aspires to be an electronic equivalent of print magazines like The Nation, The National Review or The Atlantic. And those are only the ones I know about. If only one or two of these products had blocked my pages, I might have concluded it didn't mean anything. Being on the blacklists of six censorware products proves to me that this kind of software will inevitably block speech like mine on topics \ like freedom of speech and the Holocaust.

Being blocked by all this software has led me to make an investigation of censorware and to become a founding member of The Censorware Project (http://www.spectacle.org/cwp). Each time I look into what one of these products blacklists, I found out about more Websites completely lacking any pornography--on topics like censorship, scuba diving, pet care, political activism. Many of them are run by people who don't have my legal skills or visibility, or the willingness to make a fuss to get their pages unblocked. Most have no way of even finding out which censorware products block their sites.

At least four of the products which blacklist the Spectacle are currently installed in public libraries or schools: Cybersitter, Cyberpatrol, Bess, and X-Stop. This bothers me intensely, because I always thought these institutions were in the business of providing access to pages like An Auschwitz Alphabet and the Free Speech Dictionary, not blocking them. One of the letters I got about the Alphabet was from Cenie Ho, a young student at the Djakarta International School. That school later installed CyberSitter, so Cenie and her classmates can't read An Auschwitz Alphabet any more.

When libraries install censorware, it is usually because of community pressure, and fundamentalist groups are involved. At the library board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia which resulted in a decision to install X-Stop, Dixie Sanner of Enough is Enough commented that putting library staff in charge of selecting Internet content is like "putting the wolf in charge of the henhouse." Why are we allowing people who hate and fear librarians and have no conception of the diversity of speech to dictate national library policy?

I'd like to close with three quotes which, read together, state more eloquently than I can the guiding philosophy of the American doctrine of free speech:

John Milton: "Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter....Prove all things, hold fast that which is good."

John Stuart Mill: "[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression f an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

And finally, Justice Holmes, who stated the operative metaphor for the First Amendment in his dissent in Abrams v. U.S.:

"[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas--that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

I believe that the strands uniting the thoughts of these three men are humility, tolerance and optimism-the humility to know that we do not know all the answers; the tolerance of other people's ideas; the optimism that everything will come out all right if we permit free speech. Dixie Sanner and her organization Enough is Enough do not manifest humility, tolerance or optimism when they attack librarians. The people who compile the blacklists for censorware products do not show these qualities when they add sites like mine, NOW, Peacefire or Planned Parenthood to their lists.

Please think about the fact that when I have sent you this submission, I will put it up on the Spectacle web pages-and patrons of libraries and students of schools around the world will not be able to read it because someone has concluded that these words are inappropriate for children.

Please do not mandate the use of censorware in institutions receiving federal funding.