THE X-STOP FILES: The Truth Isn't Out There

by Seth Finkelstein

So another censorware product has been found to secretly been blacklisting gay and lesbian material, anti-censorship sites, feminist resources and an incomprehensible scattershot collection of totally innocuous organizations. We can treat this as yet another "bad apple" in the endless search for the magic anti-porn program. Or we can use it as a basis for examining why such a program won't ever exist.

A censorware blacklist seems to enjoy the enviable status of being assumed perfect until exposed as otherwise. Even though CyberSitter and NetNanny were caught banning the National Organization for Women, and CyberPatrol stigmatizes feminist discussion and electronic newspaper articles about gays as "Sexual Acts", every new expose of this type seems to follow a pattern. First, it is greeted with great surprise (and denial) by too many people. Then the company's public relations staff issues a weasel-worded press release of excuses. Finally, later, we are told that that particular program may have problems, but there's another one which is better, and the cycle begins anew.

The X-Stop case is notable not for what it was exposed to be banning in secret - that had a heavy helping of the usual suspects who fare badly under any sort of blacklisting. But the significance lies in that the claims it made were such an egregious example of statements which were dubious to ludicrous, yet were frequently uncritically repeated in debate. Journalists would not dream of, say, gullibly accepting a politician's claim that no campaign actions violated controlling legal authority even though all records are secret and would not be disclosed, but the outlandish propaganda of censorware-touters is too often parroted without the slightest skepticism (this isn't restricted to X-Stop, others such as BESS, Websense, etc. have received similar build-ups, and are now starting along the cycle of exposure described above).

Just to start, X-Stop's marketers made a prominent assertion that their censorware had a blacklist which contained only entries for material which is obscene according to the Miller standard (a definition set out by the Supreme Court). Note this is not a vague claim about "pornography", which is a broad and hard to pin down term, but a very strong statement about a legal standard. Obscenity is a legal terms of art. A complex test must be met, and it is a difficult judicial determination. All material is initially presumed non-obscene until such a ruling. Moreover, obscenity is not a constant, not an intrinsic property, but a geographic variable. It varies from place to place, that is the "community standards" part of the Miller test (note this prong is typically greatly overemphasized by people trying to suppress material, it's just one aspect of a highly involved determination).

Just from this, it should be obvious that either X-Stop was lying, or it was a very small list. No great knowledge is required, just basic understanding of the meaning of the terms in the claim. And such a list would be unlikely to please many censorware advocates. For example, explicit safer-sex educational information, a frequent subject of controversy, wouldn't be obscene.

Perhaps someone wants to be generous, and rewrite X-Stop's claim into something such as "likely to be obscene somewhere in the country". This would still be a near-impossible task to list with any significant coverage of the net. There are so many sites on the Internet, all changing so rapidly, that it would require an army of censors to even try to keep up in evaluating them. And people who have some knowledge of how to make a legal determination typically aren't working for minimum wage.

X-Stop's answer to the above barrier was the "Mudcrawler" searching program. However, for a computer program to have any sort of ability to apply a complex legal standard would be an artificial-intelligence breakthrough of Nobel Prize magnitude. It hardly will be the technology of a little company making blacklists. While this perhaps isn't obvious to the general public, it should be clear to anyone with the most minimal familiarity with technical issues.

Yet with all of this pointing to the near-impossibility of X-Stop's claims, they passed very much unchallenged. The lesson here isn't "another bad blocker". It is rather how easy it is for even the most absurd censorware public-relations fluff to be taken seriously, while the truth is far different. And that whenever censor-minded people are given free reign to ban with secret blacklists, no matter what they say in public, in reality they also target their traditional enemies - feminists, gays and lesbians, anti-censorship sites, and so on.

Seth Finkelstein is a software developer who takes a particular interest in censorware and ratings systems. He maintains a Web page on the subject.