David Burt Backgrounder

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

David Burt of Filtering Facts is a librarian and pro- censorware activist. David is quoted frequently in the press on the installation of censorware in public libraries.

The following is intended for journalists and policy-makers who deal with David, and for anyone debating him on a mailing list or panel. It consists of excerpts from postings David has made to Declan McCullagh's Fight-Censorship mailing list since August, 1997. These excerpts may give some insight into David's knowledge, credibility and personality. I have included links to the Fight-Censorship archive so that the reader, if interested, may review the text of the entire message and of the thread in which it was included.

Italicized material is mine; normal fonts are David's except as otherwise identified; quoted material is indented.

Constitutional Law Expert
Date: Wed, 20 Aug 1997 22:03:07 -0700
From: filteringfacts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org

Today's NY Times has an article entitled "ACLU Attacks Filter Software in Libraries" at http://www.nytimes.com/library/cyber/law/082197law.html

It contains some quotes from that noted constitutional law scholar, David Burt.....

(Vol. 2 No. 389)

I confess, I am guilty in this case of being sloppy in my use of "indecency", where I should have used "obscence as to minors" or "harmful to minors". Why you feel my making the common mistaken of confusing "indecency", "obscenity", "harmful to minors" and "obscene as to minors" is such a noteworthy event, I dunno.

( Vol. 2 n. 518)

In December, 1997, The Censorware Project released its report, Blacklisted By CyberPatrol. Even though we never said what percentage of CP's blacklisted we had sampled, David counted the number of bad blocks we revealed, took them as a percentage of the entire 57,000 URL blacklist (ignoring the fact that a single URL like Geocities can contain hundreds of thousands of sites) and proudly announced that CyberPatrol was 99.99% "accurate".
From: Filtering Facts
Subject: Re: Blacklisted by Cyber Patrol: From Ada to Yoyo

Since you do not supply *how big a sample* you took of the CP list, we can only assume you looked at the entire list. So after exhaustively combing through the 57,000 entries on the CyberNot list you wre able to come up with about 60 bad blocks. That's about .1% In other words, you guys are asserting that CyberPatrol is 99.9% accurate. That's quite a ringing endorsement!

Merry Christmas!

(Vol. 2 no. 589)

Date: Sun, 28 Dec 1997 16:50:38 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Library Journal doesn't pick up CWP

Like I said before, your own report shows that the CP stoplist is 99.9% accurate.

99.9% accurate + unblocked in 24 hours = a good product.

Better luck next time.

(Vol. 2 no. 593)

Many list members wrote to David pointing out that some URL's included in the CyberPatrol blacklist included as many as a million pages (for example, members.tripod.com). He replied:
Date: Fri, 26 Dec 1997 19:15:22 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: Blacklisted by Cyber Patrol: From Ada to Yoyo

But there simply is no other way to calculate it. It is impossible to estimate the nubmer of pages or total byte of everything blocked, and everything not blocked, so the only meaningful way is total number of blocked URLs as a portion of the stoplists. Therefore, your results certify that the CyberNot list is 99.9% accurate.

(Vol. 2 no. 591)

Certain that David was making claims that The Learning Company would never dare to make for its own product, I wrote to Susan Getgood, CyberPatrol spokesperson, asking if she would back the claim of 99.9% accuracy and if David Burt had any financial relationship with the company.
Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 22:04:11 -0500 (EST)
From: jw@bway.net (Jonathan Wallace)
Subject: CyberPatrol: 99.9% pure?

I wrote to Susan Getgood of The Learning Company, asking if the company endorses David Burt's claims that the Cyberpatrol product is "99.9%" accurate (eg, contains one tenth of a percent bad blocks in its database).....

Her complete reply:

" As I believe he himself has stated, David Burt is a private individual who is not associated with The Learning Company. He is, of course, entitled to his opinions.

As I have said before, our public statements with regard to Cyber Patrol can be found on the website, www.cyberpatrol.com

Susan Getgood"

(Vol. 3, no. 611)

That same day, David wrote to Susan, saying for the first time that the 99.9% claim was a "joke" (though he would later repeat this claim a number of times without characterizing it as "humor").
Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 21:02:07 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: CyberPatrol: 99.9% pure?


As you well know, I don't claim CyberPatrol is "99.9% accurate", or don't make any specific claims about the degree of accuracy of the various filtering programs. What I said was, based on the number of "bad blocks" found in the CensorWare Project divided by the total number of blocks on the stoplist, 99.9% of the list is not found to be bad. As a joke, I repeatedly said "The CensorWare Project found CyberPatrol to be 99.9% accurate". Jonathan can make a joke, but he certainly can't take one, as we all know.

And, as you pointed out, I have also said repeatedly, including several times to Mr. Wallace, that I have no affiliation with The Learning Company.

One of Jonathan's hobbies is twisting and distorting the remarks of others in attempts to make mischief, as you are well aware. It's nice that you have the spare time on your hands to respond to this silly person.

Hope you had a nice three-day weekend!


There was an amusing postscript to this story. David admitted later that he had previewed the Censorware Project's working materials on one of the member's personal website, and seen portions of the CP blacklist it was inspecting. He therefore either knew or could easily have determined from this inspection that the group did not have the entire 57,000 site blacklist.

Date: Sat, 15 Nov 1997 08:00:33 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: two responses still pending from Filtering Facts

BTW, I have it on fairly good authority that Loudoun will not be using X-Stop.

(Vol. 2 no. 516)

Within a couple of weeks, the Loudoun County library board announced its selection of the X-Stop censorware.
Date: Tue, 9 Dec 1997 22:14:09 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Why WestHollywood and DejaNews won't be unblocked

CP recently told me that WestHollywood and DejaNews will not be unblocked. WestHollywood continues to offer a parade of shifty porn sites.... WestHollywood is a notorious haven for quick buck, fly-by-night porn sites and click farms.

(Vol. 2 no. 562)

Soon after, CyberPatrol unblocked the West Hollywood directory of Geocities, a gay interest area.
Some samples of how David addresses his opponents on the list. After viewing a photograph of a dinner of list members in New York City:
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998 07:44:41 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: NY dinner

(humor) What a bunch of geeks! I almost fell of my chair laughing so hard! I figured you guys would mostly be pasty-skinned short-sleeved pilsbury doughboys. None of you guys look like you ever had any sex in your life you didn't pay for. No wonder you guys are all obsessed with preserving your rights to access pornography. (/humor)

(Vol. 3 No. 606)

Date: Sun, 8 Feb 1998 19:51:29 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: David Burt on the CDA

The overweight and chronically ignorant Mr. Sims....

(Vol. 3 no. 626)

Date: Wed, 18 Feb 1998 23:12:05 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: Deja News: New Censorware Project report

And Jamie sure is eager to get all those alt.sex groups, including alt.sex.pedophilia, into the hands of children. Including alt.bestiality? Well, you know, he does live with all those bunnies... ;->

(Vol. 4 no. 5)

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 1997 19:27:33 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Re: CWP

Jonathan Wallace wrote:

A correction to David:

The Censorware Project was picked up in Netly, Wired News, Australian Financial Review, Computer underground Digest, and several other places (Jamie's got a couple of cites I don't....) Not to mention 30,000+ monthly readers of the Spectacle.

(humor) Let's see, that's two Internet news sites, one weird Aussie site, and two glorified Fanzines, one of which is the ego trip of a washed-up ambulance chaser turned porn pusher. Not real impressive. (/humor)

(Vol. 2, no. 594)

Date: Wed, 20 Aug 1997 19:26:59 -0700
From: filteringfacts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org

it accomplishes nothing to demonize people you disagree with, except to promote fear and misunderstanding.

I had mentioned on the list that The Ethical Spectacle was blocked in whole or part by five censorware products. Burt responded:
Date: Mon, 3 Nov 1997 08:24:25 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Spectacle's Game

Jonathan Wallace wrote:

When a site which freely discusses ideas, and contains no lascivious material, is blocked by so many products, don't you think there's something going on here?

Really? Mr. Wallace, perhaps you are not aware of what is going on at your site. You really should look at:


This is why the filtering vendors I talk to think that you are playing games with them, putting lurid articles like this full of foul language and reference to sex and drugs, then claiming that "your site is blocked when it is about the free discussion of ideas".

(Vol. 2 No. 483)

The link is to a short story, which contains a few four letter words. The word "drug" is used twice, eg, a reference to a character's "drug-addicted" sister. David presumably didn't read it; as a librarian he presumably knows the difference between a "story" and an "article". For a complete account of this incident, see The Mind of a Censor.

The following reminds me of the famous ending of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space: "Can you prove it didn't happen?"

Date: Sat, 8 Nov 1997 09:46:25 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Such a wild theory after all?

(He quoted his mail above)

Mr. Wallace called this a "smear", compared me to Joe McCarthy, and threatened a law suit (he later backed off this and claimed he was "only joking"). Note from the above post that I did not actually accuse Wallace of this, I only passed along a suggestion a filtering vendor had made to me. Perhaps the vendor made this assumption based on experience, as the below post proves other free speech sites opposed to filtering *admit* to doing exactly what was suggested:

Date: Tue, 18 Feb 1997 12:39:10 -0800 (PST)
From: Stanton McCandlish mech@eff.org
To: Declan McCullagh declan@pathfinder.com
Cc: sethf@mit.edu, alaoif@ala1.ala.org, fight-censorship@vorlon.mit.edu
Subject: Re: EFF and CyberPatrol

We know precisely why CyberPatrol, et al., block our censorship archive it contains the full text of the Sup.Ct. ruling in FCC v. Pacifica, "seven dirty words" and all. Not to mention an anonymized version of the Jake Baker story. We did that on purpose. We WANT filters to block us, because it serves as a good reminder that they are not very selective and that material that is probably not really objectionable to anyone will get blocked - as well as demonstrating to the courts in the CDA case that you don't have to be a pornographer to provide "indecent" material on a public web site, for damn good reasons.

In case you missed it, here it is again:
"We did that on purpose. We WANT filters to block us"

(Vol. 2 no. 496)

David has repeatedly announced he was leaving the list as a result of other people's rhetoric. The first of David's three departures from the list occurred a few days after he joined:
Date: Fri, 22 Aug 1997 21:22:23 -0700
From: filteringfacts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org

All I encountered here were a bunch of over grown adolescents (or maybe most of you are adolescents).

(Vol. 2 No. 393)

Date: Sun, 4 Jan 1998 10:07:26 -0800 (PST)
From: Filtering Facts David_Burt@filteringfacts.org
Subject: Goin' on vacation

....my wife said yesterday, "You're sure spending a lot of time arguing with those geeks, dear."....

(Vol. 2 no. 599)

David's most recent resignation resulted from my announcement that I was compiling this backgrounder:
Date: Mon, 15 Jun 1998 08:44:36 -0700 (PDT)
To: fight-censorship@vorlon.mit.edu
From: Filtering Facts burt@northwest.com
Subject: Re: Best of Burt (End of an era)

Where your page is going to bother me is if a friend or relative sees it. And frankly, I think that's your intent, to try to cause me emotional discomfort. Oh well, I *did* think about that before I said all those all those things. If I didn't want my mother to read something, I probably shouldn't have wrote it.

(Vol. 4 no. 90)