Self-proclaimed library-friendly product blocks Quakers, free speech and gay sites

By Jonathan Wallace

"You bless the lives of those you care about when you remove temptation." LOG-ON Data Corporation, distributors of X-Stop blocking software, have adopted this quote, attributed to John Patterson, founder of the National Cash Register Corporation, as a company slogan. It appears at the top of each of the product-related White Papers on the Anaheim, California company's web site.

LOG-ON claims that its X-Stop product is superior to other blockers on the market today, which include Safesurf, Surfwatch, Net Nanny, Cyberpatrol and Cybersitter. First of all, its Mudcrawler spider is, it claims, more effective at locating pornographic material on the Web than the teams of college students employed by some of its competitors. Secondly, the company claims that its "felony load" library version blocks only obscene material illegal under the Supreme Court case of Miller v. California. This, LOG-ON says, makes the product the best option available today for libraries, which wish to block only hardcore materials and not deny controversial literary, artistic or political sites to their patrons.

The privately-held, for profit company has had some success interesting libraries in X-Stop. Witness the dispute currently underway to Virginia's Loudoun County, where the decision by the library trustees to buy and install blocking software is currently being challenged by a local organization, Mainstream Loudoun. The group, composed of local parents and others concerned about what they perceive as fundamentalist influence in the county's libraries and schools, have appealed to the library board to reconsider. Meanwhile, another group, led by a member of the pro-censorship group Enough is Enough, is pressing the library to install X-Stop, based on its claim that it blocks only obscene sites.

The American Library Association has come out against the use of blocking software in libraries in a statement made in July. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees that the First Amendment bars the use of blocking software in public libraries, and is monitoring the situation in Loudoun County and elsewhere.

Does X-Stop promote a fundamentalist world view? The company boasts on its web pages that X-Stop has been endorsed by the following organizations, all of which supported the Communications Decency Act and have taken pro-censorship positions in disputes invlving offline and online speech: the American Family Association, Enough is Enough, Family Friendly Libraries, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and Oklahomans for Children and Families. (This last is the organization that recently got the film The Tin Drum seized by Oklahoma police.)

LOG-ON's claims that X-Stop is tailored for library use have apparently been accepted by some librarians and journalists. Boston Globe columnist Hiawatha Bray, in a piece published on July 24, repeated LOG-ON's claims about the effectiveness of Mudcrawler. On August 29, Karen Jo Gounaud of the pro-censorship group Family Friendly Libraries, posted a message to a mailing list for librarians in which she said, "I was witness to [a] report and information this week that convinced me there is no equal to the X-Stop program. It's even better than I thought."

How do LOG-ON's claims about the scope of its software and its appropriateness for libraries measure up? Of great interest to free speech advocates is the company's claim that X-Stop's "felony load" version only blocks materials held to be legally obscene under the rules set by the Supreme Court in Miller. The Miller standard defines obscenity as speech which is prurient, patently offensive and lacking in serious scientific, literary, artistic or political value.

Here's what LOG-ON claims on its web site:

"Our 'librarian' blocked sites list is created according to the 'Miller' standard as defined by the Supreme Court: blocked sites show sexual acts, bestiality, and child pornography. Legitimate art or education sites are not blocked by the library edition, nor are so-called 'soft porn' or 'R' rated sites like lingerie, sex toys, and nudity where no sexual act is shown."

"This is a completely absurd claim," says First Amendment attorney James S. Tyre of Bigelow, Moore & Tyre in Pasadena, California. "LOG-ON is setting itself up as judge, jury and executioner when it makes unilateral decisions about what is obscene under the Miller standard -- and there is ample reason to believe that the owners of the company have little knowledge about how to apply the standard. The X-Stop 'felony load' blocks a great number of sites which no reasonable person would consider obscene, including websites for print publications carried by most all public libraries."

Indeed, X-Stop blocks numerous sites that cannot possibly be obscene under the Miller standard, because they contain no explicit sexual material of any kind.

Here are a few examples of sites blocked by X-Stop (from a version distributed by the company at the end of July):

-- The University of Chicago's Fileroom project, which tracks acts of censorship around the world;

-- The National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law, which describes itself as devoted to "legal issues affecting lesbians, gay men and bisexuals";

--The Banned Books page at Carnegie Mellon, which gives a historical account of the travails of books such as Candide and Ulysses;

--The American Association of University Women, which describes itself as a national organization that "promotes education and equity for all women and girls";

--The AIDS Quilt site, for people interested in learning more about HIV and AIDS, with statistics on the disease and links to other relevant sites;

--Portions of the "AOL Sucks" site dealing with criticism of the America OnLine terms of service (TOS);

-- The Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank whose mission is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense";

--A number of political sites hosted by the progressive ISP IGC.APC.ORG, including the "Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting" site;

--The Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers;

--Quality Resources Online, a clearinghouse for books and other materials relating to quality in business operations.

"They're saying that Mudcrawler can automatically determine the merit of text and images, that it can make a complex legal decision. That's an utterly ridiculous and absurd claim. Just look how people argue all the time over literature and art," said Seth Finkelstein, a professional software developer who maintains an on-line collection of resources against blocking software. "Instead, they seem to blacklist anything they dislike, such as gay and lesbian material or anti-censorship organizations, or whatever innocent sites happen to fall victim to the scattershot rules behind their bans."

Bennett Haselton, a college student who is founder of the anti-censorship student organization Peacefire agrees. Haselton said, "Maybe X-Stop's intentions were originally to block only 'obscenity, bestiality and child pornography', but positive reviews from Family Friendly Libraries and OCAF should pertain to the actual product, not the manufacturer's intentions. If I can find a collection of safe sex sites that are blocked by X-Stop just by experimenting with the program for an hour, then the groups who support the program either haven't looked very hard for such examples of blocked sites, or they think it doesn't matter."

"X-Stop is an excellent example of why public libraries shouldn't purchase blocking software," said attorney James Tyre. "Under the First Amendment, librarians should be making the decisions, not private commercial operations like LOG-ON. Like the other products out there, this one blocks a lot of sites no reasonable librarian would ever exclude."