CyberPatrol: The Friendly Censor

By Jonathan Wallace

This is the second in a series of articles about censorware products. The first was The X-Stop Files. The Censorware Page contains continuing coverage of these issues and links to other sites.

(November 22, 1997)
"We didn't create our product for libraries," admits Susan Getgood, director of marketing for Microsystems Inc., distributors of CyberPatrol blocking software. But Microsystems is in business to make a profit, and when libraries come knocking on the door asking to buy the product, the company will sell it to them.

Today, CyberPatrol is installed in at least two major public library systems, in Boston, Ma. and Austin, Tx. In the former, after a bitter debate, it was installed on terminals for use by people under 18 only. In the latter, it was installed on all terminals; the library is now, after many months, considering a pilot program to offer uncensored Internet access to adults, on one out of fifty terminals.

News coverage of the blocking software industry has been dominated by the antics of Brian Milburn, president of rival Solid Oak Software, distributors of Cybersitter, the product which, in pursuit of a fundamentalist agenda, blocked the National Organization for Women among numerous other sites. By contrast, Microsystems has appeared to be the most reasonable and flexible of blocking software providers. It maintains a review board which meets every two months to review its blocking policies and which includes members of the gay community. When authors of web pages have complained to Microsystems that their sites were blocked, Microsystems has frequently apologized for the error and unblocked the sites in the product's next update.

I was one of those authors. In February of this year, I was informed that CyberPatrol blocked the pages pertaining to my and Mark Mangan's book, Sex, Laws and Cyberspace (Henry Holt, 1996).

I wrote an angry letter to Microsystems and received the following reply:

"Hi Jonathan,

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This site was blocked in error. I have removed this site from the CyberNOT list. This change will take effect with the next build of the CyberNOT list, by next Tuesday. Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this has caused.

Debra Greaves
Internet Research Supervisor"

At the time, the Boston Public Library had just installed CyberPatrol. Ironically, six branches of the Boston library had my book on the shelves but you couldn't get to the Web page from a terminal with CyberPatrol installed.

With a new wave of libraries considering the purchase of blocking software, I decided to go back and take another look at CyberPatrol. The informal methodology I used was to check my collection of ethical, political and legal Web sites against the Cybernot search engine that Microsystems maintains on its Web page. A Cybernot search will tell you whether or not the product blocks a particular site, but will not reveal in which category it is blocked. My goal was to determine which of these sites, containing controversial speech but no obscenity or illegal material whatever, were blocked by CyberPatrol.

Cybernot reported that CyberPatrol blocked twelve of my bookmarked sites, out of a total of about 270. These included:

The Flag Burning Page. This site, which I regard as one of the most intelligent and funny resources on the Web, examines the unconstitutionality under the First Amendment of laws against burning the flag.

The Second Amendment Foundation. This is a large collection of resources on Second Amendment right-to-bear-arms issues. While the blocking of this site is questionable under any theory, it is also a nice illustration of the inconsistency of CyberPatrol and of all blocking software. The product does not block the National Rifle Association, or numerous other sites on both sides of the gun control issue.

The Newtwatch page is regrettably no longer on the Web, but CyberPatrol blocks it at its former URL. Funded by the Democratic party, Newtwatch was a combination of devastating political reportage and satire aimed at Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. It contained nothing that was offensive to children by any stretch of the imagination-- unless they were Republican children with no sense of humor.

Another vanished Web page that is still blocked is the Dr. Bonzo web page,, a series of satirical essays on religious matters. The blocking of these two pages, long removed from the Web, raises questions about the frequency with which the CyberPatrol database is updated. A third blocked page which is no longer on the Web contained nothing but a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Other sites contained some explicit text but did so in the pursuit of a socially significant goal. For example, the Jake Baker page contains news reports and analysis of the case of the University of Michigan student who was arrested for distributing a rape and torture fantasy about a classmate on Usenet. Baker's stories, which led to his arrest, are also linked from this page. The case broke some new legal ground, and Mark Mangan and I used this site as a research resource in writing Sex, Laws and Cyberspace. It is hard to imagine how we could have written about the case without reading Baker's horrifying stories, which are presumably the reason why CyberPatrol blocks the entire site.

CyberPatrol also blocks DejaNews, a Usenet search engine. DejaNews, of course, is a major resource for anyone searching for Usenet discussion on any topic, and we also relied heavily on it in writing Sex, Laws and Cyberspace. One startled user of the Austin Public Library posted to Usenet a few weeks ago: "As DejaNews is one of the top Internet research tools, [this] decision transcends comprehension." DejaNews does not relay any graphics posted to Usenet; Microsystems apparently fears users will find explicit text.

CyberPatrol blocked some of the bookmarked sites for no imaginable reason. The company has admitted to a number of errors in the past, in addition to the blocking of the Sex, Laws and Cyberspace page. Like other blocking software companies, Microsystems has employees surfing the Web, looking for sites to add to the Cybernot list-- and frequently they are not very careful. For example, Cybernot reports that the Society for the Promotion of Unconditional Relationships (SPUR) is blocked. The group describes its mission thus: "to increase public understanding and awareness of the nature and benefits of Unconditional Commitment in Relationships." The SPUR page contains articles with names like "The Role of Faith in Relationships."

It was also hard to understand why CyberPatrol blocks the Interactivism page. This site specializes in virtual activism; its top page, as I write these words, invites you to send faxes to politicians on issues including handgun control, freedom for Tibet, and campaign finance reform.

Adults researching a variety of topics, notably freedom of speech-related issues, in the Austin public library are going to run into some significant roadblocks. The Austin library blocks four categories, three of them sex-related (including the categories under which Dejanews and the Jake Baker page are blocked) and the fourth entitled "gross depictions". Jon Lebkowsky, an Austin-based author and activist, was involved in discussions with library officials about their installation of CyberPatrol. He commented: "The Austin Public Library promised that filters would be an 'interim measure,' but backed off from that promise, thinking that their scaled-down filtering was gaining acceptance.... The APL should have honored the American Library Association's position on filters and removed the software after the Supreme Court's CDA decision."

Microsystems acknowledges that CyberPatrol was never meant to be used to determine what adults can see. In March 1997, Susan Getgood wrote in a message posted to Declan McCullagh's Fight-Censorship list:

"The CyberNOT list was designed to be used by adults to manage children's access to the Internet. It is not a filter meant for adults."

A few weeks ago, at the annual New York Library Association meeting in Syracuse, Susan Getgood conducted a panel on blocking software. During the Q&A afterwards, I asked her:

"Isn't it true that CyberPatrol blocks First Amendment protected, socially valuable material?"

Susan thought for an extraordinarily long time before answering the question. Finally, she said very carefully, that in creating the Cybernot list, Microsystems didn't think about whether blocked pages are constitutionally protected or socially valuable. The company only thought about whether the material is (by its own standards) "inappropriate for children."

Microsystems standards for determining appropriateness were not written by a librarian, nor meant for use in libraries. They weren't meant to keep speech from adult eyes. Applied to children, they draw no distinction between eight year olds and eighteen year olds. The latter conceivably might have a research assignment which involves looking at the Flag Burning page, the Jake Baker page or the Second Amendment Foundation. "Just as the CDA tried to reduce the entire net to something appropriate for 12-year-olds, so CyberPatrol is trying to expand the children's section to fill the entire library", said Jamie McCarthy, an Internet activist and software developer based in Michigan.

In the Boston Public Library, CyberPatrol is installed on terminals used by people under 18, unless there is a parental permission slip on file allowing use of an uncensored computer. The three sex-related categories are blocked; one of these, SexActs, is used to block text-only sites and is one of the categories assigned to Dejanews and the Jake Baker page. This category has also been used to block feminist discussion groups.

The company's willingness to unblock sites is meaningless. The Internet is growing by leaps and bounds every week, and even as the company deletes sites like mine from the Cybernot database, Microsystems' harried surfers will be making fresh mistakes. Seth Finkelstein, a Boston-based software developer who follows censorware issues closely, commented: "No small group of people can hope to keep up with all the changes on the Web. Offering to correct 'mistakes', while good from a marketing standpoint, simply does not make up for the impossible nature of the task. We only see the problems which have been exposed so far; what else is lurking, not yet uncovered in their blacklist?"

Putting a barrier between users and research sources is not what libraries do. Mark Mangan and I could not have written Sex, Laws and Cyberspace in the Austin library; too many of our sources are blocked. (Cyberpatrol also previously blocked the Electronic Frontier Foundation archives, and the MIT Student Association for Free Expression , two other sources we consulted in writing our book.) I hope that there are at least some librarians in Austin who feel ashamed that their library could not be used as a research source for a book on freedom of speech.

CyberPatrol doesn't belong in public libraries. The company, by its own statements, has all but admitted this. The library which buys CyberPatrol has only itself to blame for its dereliction of responsibility towards its users.