The Censorware Project

Blacklisted by Cyber Patrol

From Ada to Yoyo

A report from The Censorware Project


Cyber Patrol, like other blocking software, takes an extraordinarily clumsy approach to the Net, blocking tens of thousands of sites which meet none of its criteria.

While censorware advocates such as David Burt of Filtering Facts insist that blocking errors are rare and that the "perfect filter" is attainable, the reality is quite different. As hard as companies like Microsystems may try, filtering the Internet is a challenge similar to filtering the ocean.

With millions of sites already on the Web, and with thousands more coming online every day, a company like Microsystems cannot possibly hire enough people to scan every one of these sites. Nor are these employees able to give more than cursory attention to the sites they scan, accounting for the completely unfounded blocking of many of the sites we discuss in this report.

It is the impossibility of filtering the Web which inevitably leads Microsystems into serious errors like blocking the entire West Hollywood neighborhood of Geocities. Whenever ISP's and Web hosting services place hundreds or thousands of Web pages in a single directory, chances are excellent that at least a few of these pages will contain hardcore material. Since a huge time investment is required to look at all the sites in a directory like West Hollywood, it is easier for products like Cyber Patrol to block the entire directory, throwing out a large baby with a very small amount of bathwater. In a case where the entire directory is dedicated to speech that the censorware publisher can tar as socially controversial or "marginal", such as West Hollywood's gay focus, wholesale blocks become even easier to justify. Witness the jargon-filled excuse Microsystems CEO Dick Gorgens gave to justify the West Hollywood block:

"We took the 'easier' approach to blocking the small number of actionable non-nudity publishers in that area rather than individually sanctioning them."

The West Hollywood example illustrates the impossibility of the task that censorware providers claim to do. West Hollywood contains 23,400 separate sites, each containing one or more pages. If a Microsystems employee spent an average of five minutes reviewing each site, it would take more than a year to review all of West Hollywood. Since West Hollywood is just a tiny percentage of the entire Web, it becomes clear that the effort required to review the entire Web would be immense and well beyond the abilities of Microsystems or any other censorware company. Of course, five minutes is a wholly inadequate amount of time to form an opinion regarding sites other than commercial ones dedicated to hardcore porn. Add to this the fact that the Web is a moving target, with sites changing, going away and being added every day, and the impossibility of filtering the Web becomes self-evident.

Of course, censorware firms rely on automated aids, such as spiders, to review the Web for controversial material. But the sites they find must still be reviewed by a human being. Software cannot make highly subjective and ambiguous evaluations of the appropriateness of Web pages, a fact which even censorware advocates cannot seriously dispute.

Microsystems uses a tool it calls Cyber Spyder, which the company's director of marketing, Susan Getgood, describes as follows: "Cyber Spyder visits the sites and creates a report including 25 characters before and 25 characters after each occurence of the keywords used in a particular search." This report is reviewed by a Microsystems employee, who decides whether to review the site. According to Getgood, no site is added to the blacklist without being reviewed by a human being. However, the sheer number of inappropriate blocks we disclose in this report testifies to the inadequacy both of Cyber Spyder and of the Microsystems human review process.

There is evidence that once a site is added to the Cyber Patrol blacklist, Microsystems does not review it again unless a complaint is made. We found a number of blocked sites which no longer exist, and some have been missing from the Web for a long time. Two examples we found are The Dr. Bonzo page of satirical essays on religion and politics, and the Newtwatch page covering Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (both of which we believe to have been erroneously blocked in the first place).

Another myth about censorware publishers is that they readily correct errors when they become aware of them. While some are extraordinarily stubborn about making any changes to their blacklist, Microsystems has acquired a reputation for flexibility. An examination of the facts shows that the company has been extremely inconsistent in fixing problems.

The blocking of the entire West Hollywood neighborhood of GeoCities is an example of a major error that the company has failed to fix after more than a month of discussion; as of this writing (December 21, 1997) Cyber Patrol continues to block 23,400 valid sites in West Hollywood because of a few pornographic sites which have since been removed, even though Microsystems' CEO promised that the block would be removed.

There are numerous other examples. When MicroSystems was informed that Cyber Patrol blocked the MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression, the company apologized and unblocked the site-- only to add it back to the blacklist a few months later. (It has since unblocked the site a second time.)

Of course, MicroSystems, like all censorware providers, makes no attempt to notify sites that they are on its blocked list. The company does maintain a search engine on its Web page where you can look up your site to see if it has been blocked. The search engine does not, however, inform you in which category your pages are blocked.

The majority of the Webmasters who replied to us were shocked to discover that their pages were blocked by Cyber Patrol. Ironically, the more inappropriate the block, the less likely a Webmaster would have any reason to search for her own site in the Cyber Patrol search engine. Why, for example, would the owners of the Creature's Comfort Pet Care Service check to see if their site was blocked by Cyber Patrol?

We believe that MicroSystems' clumsy, error-filled approach to blocking is enough to make the use of Cyber Patrol in public libraries unlawful due to the large amounts of First Amendment-protected speech the product blocks. There is a second, equally important reason why Cyber Patrol should not be used in libraries: By the company's own admission, the product was never intended to be used to determine what adults should see. In a March 1997 message posted to the fight-censorship mailing list, Susan Getgood, Microsystems' director of marketing, wrote: "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."

In conclusion, Cyber Patrol is an error-filled product trying to do an impossible job. While we believe potential purchasers should take this into account in deciding whether to buy censorware, individuals have a right to choose whether or not to install censorware on their own computers. However, we believe that Cyber Patrol's defects make it (and all other existing censorware) completely inappropriate and, in fact, unlawful for use by public institutions such as libraries.

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