Hey Armey, You’ve Been Filtered

When Congressman Dick Armey (R-Texas) spoke up in favor of filtering software and other Net censorship measures, he probably didn’t think it’d come back to bite him in the, um, ass.

When Congressman Dick Armey (R-Texas) spoke up in favor of filtering software and other Net censorship measures, he probably didn’t think it’d come back to bite him in the, um, ass.

But irony being what it is, the House majority leader’s own conservative Freedom Works site is one of the many blocked by filtering software, according to the winner of the Foiling the Filter contest’s Poetic Justice Award.

Bill Hart, a retired Colorado professor, found that at least six filtering programs blocked the Freedom Works site, probably because of the prolific use of the House majority leader’s shortened first name.

“The irony is that Armey is a big fan of censorware,” said Hart. “I just wanted to show what a bad deal censorware is. Not only is it wrong and ridiculous to try to control what is seen on the Internet, censorware doesn’t even work properly.”

Hart is one of 11 who submitted winning entries to Digital Freedom Network’s Foiling the Filter contest. The contest was meant to bring in examples of filtering software’s many embarrassing and often ominous gaffes and focus public attention on the pros and cons of Internet censorship in general and filtering software, or “censorware” in particular.

“Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to decide the winner because we got so much funny stuff,” said Alan Brown of the DFN.

The grand prize winner is an anonymous high school entrant unable to access his own school’s site on the school library’s filtered computers due to the word “high” in the page’s title. DFN also handed out 10 other awards like the Overkill Award to denote entries dealing with overzealous filters and the Twilight Zone Award for filters that blocked sites seemingly at random.

Award winner and Washington, D.C. librarian Jim Kuhn produced his winning entry by putting Cybersitter through its paces. He found that the filtering program blocked access to sites about Dr. Laura’s television show and Pure Intimacy, a site intended for conservative users seeking to avoid Net porn addictions.

The Pure Intimacy site seemed to set Cybersitter alarm bells ringing loudest, leading the program to block the page under suspicions that the site contained hardcore pornography, nudity and information about bondage.

Indeed, a quick scan of the front page turns up words like “pornography,” “hard-core” and even “psychological bondage.” Even though the site is using these words to condemn adult activities online, their mere presence on the page is enough to make many filtering programs block access.

“Amusingly, the software that is trying to protect users from porn is blocking access to sites dealing with that very same issue,” said Kuhn. “As an exercise in irony, I found this all quite satisfying. After all, with friends like Solid Oak Software supporting their efforts, do Focus on the Family or Dr. Laura really need enemies?”

When informed of the block, Cybersitter vice president of marketing Marc Kanter says that the software is by its nature imperfect but still provides protection for kids online and others who need a “safer” Net.

“Filtering is not an exact science but it’s protection for those who need it and choose to download and use the software,” said Kanter.

Kanter also said the Dr. Laura and Pure Intimacy blocks may not be as off-the-wall as they seem at first glance.

“I’ve looked at Dr. Laura’s site,” he said. “Some of her content is controversial and deals with pornography and issues around homosexuality. The same with the Pure Intimacy site. Parents may not be comfortable with kids having any information about sex or homosexuality, and they have the right to block access to pages containing information on those subjects.”

But Kuhn says programs like Cybersitter go too far.

“As a librarian, I am concerned that filtering in public libraries or schools may give parents a false sense of security that their children are protected when they are not,” Kuhn said. “The examples I gave show that filtering is an imperfect technology. Filters don’t block all of the bad stuff, and they do end up blocking sites that can be of real help to people, whether that is a TV listing or an online anti-pornography resource.”

Other Foiling the Filters winners include a Hotmail user who couldn’t sign up for an account using her own name because the filtering software read an ethnic slur in its letters, a Quokka.com user who noticed he couldn’t post the words “golden,” “mate” or “scoop” on site discussion boards, and a gamer who was barred from using the words “homosexual” or “gay” on discussion boards within the Cyberstrike II site.

“Somehow I got into an argument about the definition of morality in one of their chat rooms (within the game), and the subject of homosexuality was brought up,” Arlington, Va. gamer John Woods wrote in an e-mail interview. “Oddly enough, it didn’t block the word “fag” when they used it to describe me (incorrectly, I might add), but it did block “homo” in “homosexual;” thus the filtered text displayed as ‘What’s wrong with being *&^#sexual?'”

“How odd that the generic and scientific terms were blocked while the offensive ones remained usable,” Woods mused.

DFN plans to give the winners some sort of token prize.

“We had said at the start that we’d try to find representative gifts for the two big winners, like a T-shirt from Scunthorpe (an English town that has set off many Net filters with its unusual name) or a bumper sticker from Uberfucking, Austria. I still intend to get something like that for them, but if availability (or existence) is a problem with these things, we’ll come up with something else. I mean, I’ve never seen a shirt that said ‘My parents went to Uberfucking and all they brought back was this lousy T-shirt,'” says Brown.

Interestingly, the town names Brown mentions may be enough to block this story from the eyes of filtered users. After Wired News ran a previous story on the Foiling the Filters contest, Andy Carvin, owner of the long-running educational listserv WWWEDU, wrote to say that when he referenced the Wired News story on the listserv, he got back e-mail notifying him that his e-mails had been blocked by filtering systems in the e-mail system of K-12 schools.

“We talk about filtering and First Amendment rights on the list all the time, so it seemed appropriate that I forward your article to the list,” said Carvin via e-mail, who said his e-mails began bouncing back with blocking notations from filtering programs at various schools. “It was proof of something that I had long feared: Certain filters used by K-12 schools were preventing educators from receiving e-mails regarding the filtering debate!”

Author: Joyce Slaton

News Service: Wired News

URL: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,39038,00.html