by Jonathan Wallace firstname.lastname@example.org
Censorware software vendors say that they rarely make mistakes, and correct them quickly when called to their attention. CyberPatrol's block of an online neighborhood called West Hollywood sheds some interesting light on this assertion.
Geocities is a free Web hosting service, organized into "neighborhoods" of shared interests. The West Hollywood neighborhood of Geocities is for gay people. The entire West Hollywood neighborhood, of 23,400 separate Web sites, is blocked by CyberPatrol, a product of Microsystems Inc., a Boston company.
There were a few hardcore pictures on a few West Hollywood Web pages, despite Geocities terms of service which ban pornography on the system. There were tens of thousands of other pages which contained no objectionable material at all. CyberPatrol critics say that Microsystems threw out a very large baby with a small amount of bathwater.
Bob Parker is the Community Leader Liaison for West Hollywood--a sort of volunteer Webmaster. In a long, impassioned post to the fight-censorship mailing list, cross-posted to Microsystems and numerous other recipients, he quoted the Geocities terms of service, which ban the display of "material containing nudity or pornographic material of any kind." The company also has a full-time "Community Response Team" which investigates complaints filed by anyone, Geocities customer or not, about violations of the terms of service. In addition, West Hollywood maintains its own "Neighborhood Watch" program. Parker pointed out that Microsystems chose to block a community of 23,400 sites when there was an alternative: "[A]ll it would have taken was a few minutes of investigation on the part of Microsystems to find out about the Neighorhood Watch program at GeoCities, get the sites taken care of and avoid this whole situation."
Challenged to justify the West Hollywood block, Microsystems CEO Dick Gorgens reacted equivocally. "Upon my review, you were absolutely correct in your assessment that the subdirectory block on WestHollywood is prejudicial to the Gay and Lesbian Geocities community," he told the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a group which sits on a CyberPatrol oversight committee convened by Microsystems. But then he seemed to claim that the majority of West Hollywood web pages are pornographic: "We took the 'easier' approach to blocking the small number of actionable non-nudity publishers in that area rather than individually sanctioning them." But he acknowledged that "[t]aking that technique to the limit would have us pull the plug on the entire Internet which is obviously not our plan." He pledged that the West Hollywood "problem" would be corrected within a week. Two weeks later, it still has not been.
"GLAAD was extremely disappointed that such a discriminatory move was made by Microsystems," wrote Loren Javier, the organization's interactive media director. Critics had suggested that the organization reconsider its role in advising Microsystems--that the organization might be providing cover to the company without actually preventing the product from blocking legitimate gay-oriented sites. Javier wrote: "The issue now is whether GLAAD will continue to serve on the oversight committee. I have sent a message to Dick Gorgens with conditions that I be able to review the complete block list and that I be able to ask why sites have been blocked." Microsystems has not previously allowed its oversight committee members to view the CyberNot list.
The blocking of West Hollywood raises the issue of whether it is possible to filter the Internet at all. At five minutes per site--a very cursory amount of time to determine whether a Web page is "appropriate" under Microsystems' criteria--it would take a company employee 1950 hours, a little more than one person-year, to review every site in West Hollywood. And West Hollywood's pages constitute just a tiny drop of the estimated 200 million documents on the Internet. Though Microsystems says that it uses a tool called Cyber Spyder to winnow the Net and select sites for review, every page returned by the tool as a potential candidate for blocking is still reviewed by a human being. No-one seriously claims that any software possible today is capable of making the kinds of subjective determinations necessary in evaluating the "appropriateness" of Web pages. Censoring the net will always be a labor-intensive effort.
The blocking of West Hollywood is not an isolated instance. A report issued this week by The Censorware Project, an ad hoc group of which I am a member, lists fifty Web hosting services blocked in their entirety by Cyberpatrol, even though the majority of user pages on these services are legitimate. One of them, members.tripod.com, hosts 1.4 million Web pages. (Source: Blacklisted by CyberPatrol: From Ada to Yoyo.)
Faced with the near impossible task of reviewing the entire Net, censorware companies like Microsystems will continue to take the easy way out.
(On Monday, December 22, 1997, Washington attorney Robert Corn-Revere filed a ground-breaking federal lawsuit challenging the use of another censorware product, X-Stop, in the Loudoun County, Va., public library.)