The WebSENSE Censorware at Work
By The Censorware Project
June 21, 1998
In April, the Censorware Project reported that the WebSENSE blocking software from NetPartners Internet Solutions of San Diego was in use in the federal courts in the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits, covering twenty-two states and Guam. WebSENSE is also installed in the Orange County, Florida, and Fulton County, Indiana public libraries.
Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said: "Its an outrage....I don't do stuff like that to my children." (Quoted in James Evans, "Blindered Justice: 9th Circuit Judges Chafe Over Software That Restricts Access to X-Rated Internet Sites", Los Angeles Daily Journal, April 27, 1998, p. 1.)
After publicizing the installation of censorware in the federal court system, The Censorware Project evaluated the WebSENSE product. We wanted to determine what kind of speech the court administrators were seeking to keep from the judges' eyes.
The answer: our tax dollars are being spent to protect judges, and library users, against Liza Minnelli, Jewish teens, a grocer, a speakers' bureau, a mortgage company--and some free speech advocates. All of these sites are blocked by WebSENSE under the Sex1, Sex2 or Adult Entertainment categories, the settings used in the federal courts and in libraries.
On its website, NetPartners brags that:
[W]e do not use key words or wild cards when adding sites. Instead, we rely on our team of Internet surfers who personally check each potential site to verify the contents..... This process ensures that only those sites that actually meet the category definitions are included in the database.
The Censorware Project tested WebSENSE to see if this claim could be verified. We discovered that, like any censorware product, WebSENSE blacklists numerous sites erroneously.
We concentrated on sites blocked under WebSENSE's Adult, Sex1 and Sex2 categories, which are enabled in both the federal court's and Orange County library's WebSENSE implementations. The company defines Adult as "Adult Entertainment -- Full or partial nudity of individuals. This might include strip clubs, lingerie, adult- oriented chat rooms, erotica, sex toys, light adult humor and literature, etc." Sex1 is defined as " (Pornography) -- Heterosexual activity involving one or two persons, hard-core adult humor and literature, etc." Sex 2 is described as "(Sexuality/Lifestyles) -- Heterosexual acts involving more than two people; homosexual and bisexual acts, orgies, swinging, bestiality, sadism, masochism, fetishes, etc., and related hard-core adult humor and literature."
The following pages are a small sample of the sites we found inappropriately blocked by WebSENSE:
Like all other censorware we have examined, WebSENSE contains numerous bad blocks. Contrary to the marketing claims, clearly no human being examined these sites before they were added to the blacklist.
We believe that, like most censorware companies, Net Partners uses an automated tool, called a "spider" to search the Web for sites which meet certain criteria, including the use of keywords such as "teens" or "sex". The company claims, as quoted above, that every site is then examined by a human being. The grossly inappropriate blocks listed here--Liza Minnelli, a grocer, a speakers' bureau, a mortgage company, a teens page all blocked as pornography--belie this claim.
In the case of the blacklisted Japanese sports sites, we believe that NetPartner's spider is picking up a common string of Japanese characters as an English-language word on its blacklist. Unseen by a human reviewer, these Japanese language sites then end up being blocked as porn.
The use of WebSENSE in the court system and public libraries is clearly a violation of First Amendment rights of court employees and library users. In a recent decision in the first lawsuit brought to challenge the use of censorware in libraries, Judge Leonie Brinkema held that the Internet "more closely resembles plaintiffs' analogy of a collection of encyclopedias from which defendants have laboriously redacted portions deemed unfit for library patrons." Judge Brinkema also said that "public libraries are places of freewheeling and independent inquiry." Once having chosen to provide access to the Internet, Judge Brinkema concluded that "the Library Board may not thereafter selectively restrict certain categories of Internet speech because it disfavors their content." (Mainstream Loudoun v. Loudoun County Libraries).
Under the standard Judge Brinkema suggested should be applied, censorware installed in public institutions must be "narrowly tailored" to serve a "compelling government interest." WebSENSE fails the "narrowly tailored" branch of the test for two related reasons: First, the profound negligence illustrated by the numerous bad blocks included in the product's blacklist; secondly, the extreme vagueness of the company's standards. For example, "Heterosexual activity involving one or two persons" as a definition of pornography would permit the censorship of almost every novel or movie currently available. As Judge Brinkema's decision forecasts, censorware will fail to stand up to the exacting standards demanded by First Amendment law. It has no place in public libraries or in the courts. (A briefing paper on the unconstitutionality of such uses of censorware is available.)
It is the ultimate irony that co-workers of Judge Brinkema's in other federal circuits cannot surf the Web without going through WebSENSE, the product which protects them against Liza Minnelli, Jewish teens, speakers' bureaus, and mortgage companies.
Please see the story by the CyberTimes, the New York Times on the Web: Filter Used by Courts Blocks Innocuous Sites.
The Censorware Project is a group of Internet activists opposed to blocking software and ratings systems for the Web, on the grounds that both approaches promote government censorship of the Net. For more information, please contact Jonathan Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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