What’s the Worst &*#% Filter?

Frustrated by “censorware” that won’t let you find information about, say, sextuplets or Middlesex, England? The Digital Freedom Network is holding a Foil the Filters contest.

Frustrated by “censorware” that won’t let you find information about, say, sextuplets or Middlesex, England? The Digital Freedom Network is holding a Foil the Filters contest.

Famed auto racer Dick Trickle’s name no doubt helps him get good seats at busy restaurants, but it would keep him from registering at a number of websites with filtering programs.

Fed up with such filtering programs and other so-called Internet “censorware,” the Digital Freedom Network has launched its Foil the Filters contest.

Web users are encouraged to submit examples of foolish Web filters through Sept. 25. DFN hopes the contest will draw attention to filtering software, which DFN Internet Development Director Alan Brown calls “ineffective at best.”

“Censorware like CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, whatever, it not only doesn’t work well — it doesn’t work at all,” Brown said. “If your interest is in making sure whoever is on your computer doesn’t get to porn or bomb recipes or whatever, it’s no challenge for anyone with a little bit of savvy to get to whatever they want.”

DFN decided to hold the contest after Sherrill Babcock contacted the network to tell staff there about her experiences on BlackPlanet.com.

When she tried to register on the site to get access to its content, she says she was told that her last name was “unacceptable.” She says BlackPlanet staff instead asked Babcock to choose a different name, and she successfully registered under the last names Babpenis and Babdildo.

“It’s funny, yeah, it makes you laugh, but it also makes you think,” Brown says. “What happened in this case wasn’t a huge deal, but it draws attention to the problems of censorware.”

DFN has already received entries from a Navy recruit studying for an A+ exam who couldn’t access http://www.aplusexam.com because the Navy’s firewalls wouldn’t allow the word “sex” contained in the URL. A citizen of Scunthorpe, England, wrote in about his email being blocked due to objectionable letters in his town’s name, and a Canadian teacher’s student couldn’t get genetic information about cucumbers through school filters.

The failings of censorware have certainly gotten plenty of press over the years, but that hasn’t stopped its implementation or the continuing public debate over the issue of free Net speech.

“Part of why we have a filter in place on screen names is so that we can try to have something that feels like a residential neighborhood as opposed to a redlight district,” says Omar Wasow, executive director of BlackPlanet.com.

“While I’m sympathetic to Ms. Babcock’s issue, there’s a balancing act we have to have for members to have a safe and civil community as well as freedom of expression,” he says. “We’re about to register our millionth member, and it’s just not feasible for us to review each case one-by-one. We have to employ some type of technological measures, and filtering software, though crude, is our best option.”

Part of the confusion surrounding censorware is that the term refers to so many different kinds of software. Censorware includes everything from Net-monitoring programs like CYBERsitter to filtering programs designed to restrict what users can post on a public Web forum, to ISP-level filters that prevent certain kinds of Web content from being served. Some can even monitor and block emails.

While examples like Babcock’s or Wired News’ own tests of filtering BAIR software draw attention to the imperfections of the programs, experts say that the issues are deeper than just a few blocked porno sites.

“People get lost in thinking just about censoring sex pages, but all kinds of other stuff is censored,” says Mark Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “In some libraries you can’t get information about books by Anne Sexton, for instance, or information from Middlesex County in New Jersey.”

Peacefire.org founder and Net free-speech activist Bennett Haselton, whose anti-censorship organization releases reports on various software products and what they block, sees ominous implications even when the examples of blocked words or sites are amusing.

“Word filtering examples are ‘funny,’ but they leave the blocking software company completely blameless,” Haselton wrote in an email. “And besides, advocates of blocking software can always say that schools’ libraries can simply turn off keyword blocking to avoid errors like those.

“The truth is, though, that I think the examples of sites blocked for political reasons (e.g. EFA.org.au blocked by SurfWatch, NOW.org blocked by CYBERsitter, various ISPs blocked by Cyber Patrol) are much more important than the examples of sites blocked due to word filtering.”

Free-speech activists also warn that the problems caused by Net filtering may seem slight to U.S. residents, but have much more serious implications in repressive countries like China or Turkey.

“You can’t visit The New York Times from a Chinese ISP because of political concerns about what political speech and cultural information Chinese citizens might read,” Brown says. “In Burma you can’t even have a modem unless you’re one of a select group of governmental officials or company insiders.”

“When you think about what’s censored by repressive countries, this gets to be less of a funny issue and more of a serious one,” Rotenberg says. “Censors are chipping away at the freedom of expression online, and what seems funny to us in the U.S. actually brings up very serious issues, for the U.S. and the world as well.”

Author: Joyce Slaton

News Service: Wired News

URL: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,38910,00.html

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