Dick Armey and the Pussycat: The Illogic of Internet Filters

The Internet is a scary place. Sure, it's a communications tool of astonishing reach and an unprecedented source of news and information. It's also home to countless places touting sex, drugs, hate, violence and more sex -- a lot like the rest of the world, actually. In both places, there's plenty of stuff you might not find tasteful or want your children to see.

In real life, the best we can do is make conscious choices, teach our children well, and leave the house everyday to face the big, messy world outside. On the Internet, there's another choice -- filtering.

Touted as the antidote to offensive content, filtering software has proliferated along with the growth of the net itself. The various products on the market -- which essentially block access to web pages with naughty words -- allow parents, educators, and employers to filter content on either individual PCs or whole networks of computers. Since numerous legislative efforts to limit offensive material online have failed (they didn't survive free speech challenges), this do-it-yourself filtering software seemed like a reasonable alternative.

However, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed by Congress last December, has changed the playing field. CIPA mandates the use of filters in all schools and libraries that receive funding under federal programs -- about six out of ten of the nation's public schools and libraries.

That pesky First Amendment aside, the problem isn't just that Internet filters don't work well. It's that the very nature of how filtering software weeds out inappropriate content means they never will. A new report from the National Coalition Against Censorship (www.ncac.org), "Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report," documents just how spectacularly most filters fail.

The problem begins with the sheer number of sites, according to NCAC, which requires filters to rely on "mindless mechanical blocking" triggered by the identification of certain key words and phrases. And when actual human judgement enters the equation, the results are subjective at best. The result is that popular products like Net Nanny, SurfWatch, and Cybersitter all blocked House Majority Leader Richard "Dick" Armey's official website upon detection of the word "dick." Most filters have various levels of filtering, allowing users to check off what they want to weed out. By clicking on X-Stop's "foul word function," for example, searches for "The Owl and the Pussycat" and the novel, Bastard Out of Carolina were blocked.

To compile the report, NCAC summarized over 70 tests of 19 Internet filters conducted by various organizations and journalists over the past five years. The samples in many cases are random, but viewed in total they present some alarming patterns.

Most noticeable is that time and again, sites with gay-related content were blocked. From the Safer Sex page (www.safersex.org) to the site of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere to the entire West Hollywood directory of GeoCities, information with nonsexual lesbian and gay content was blocked by a number of filters. One test of CYBERSitter, which claims its keyword blocking feature "looks at how a word or phrase is used in context," obviously found something objectionable about Robert Frost when it deleted "queer" from "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" ("My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near").

The list of the dozens of sites wrongfully blocked strays from the troubling to the outright bizarre. In the first category are a number of political sites, including AOL's "youth filter" blocking the Green Party (www.greens.org), Censorware blocking the website of Congressman Ed Markey (www.edmarkey.org), and BESS blocking the Traditional Values Coalition (www.traditionalvalues.org).

In a December, 2000 study, Peacefire found that Cyber Patrol set to filter "sexually explicit" content blocked such titillating sites as the Canadian Labour Congress (www.clc-ctc.ca), the American Kurdish Information Network (www.kurdistan.org), which tracks human rights abuses against Kurds, and the Sisterhood is Global Institute (www.sigi.org), a group dedicated to the human rights of women worldwide.

In the bizarre category, sites blocked include Focus on the Family's Pure Intimacy page (www.pureintimacy.org), aimed at those "struggling with sexual temptations," Air Penny (BeInMyPoster.com), a Nike site devoted to basketball player Penny Hardaway, and numerous pages and sites containing the syllable "cum," including biographies of two members of the Commission on Online Child Protection who graduated college "magna cum laude" and a site on the genetics of cucumbers. (The mind races with the multitudinous possibilities of errant censorship. What about fan sites for Scottish actor Alan Cumming, a personal favorite, or English curricula featuring that degenerate lower-case poet, e.e. cummings?)

With all the over-blocking of legitimate sites, you would think the filters do a good job blocking the truly bad stuff. But even when it comes to spotting porn, many of the programs don't know Dick from, well, dick. Consumer Reports found that Cyber Patrol failed to block almost a quarter of the sites off a list of 86 "easily located" sites touting graphic sex, violence, drugs, tobacco, crime or bigotry. Net Nanny, according to another study, failed to block over 80 percent of objectionable sites, including xxx.hardcore.com and www.ultravixen.com.

The bottom line is that we need better alternatives to protecting children online, including parental guidance and Internet use training. As for the federal mandate to use filters, "Each local library board should make its own decision," says the American Library Association's (ALA) Deborah Caldwell-Stone. "The problems arise when the government says you have to use filters." Stone and the ALA have joined the ACLU in heading up the legal challenge to CIPA.

So far, not many libraries have chosen to actively resist CIPA, with the notable exception of the San Francisco Public Library. That city's Board of Supervisors earlier this year codified existing practice by banning filters on public computers used by adults and teens. The question of whether to install filters on computers used by children 13 and under is currently under consideration by the local Library Commission.

"So far, we have not had a big problem with children accessing inappropriate information," notes San Francisco city librarian Susan Hildreth. "But this is a very emotional issue."

Finally, a logical explanation to a wildly illiogical public policy.

The NCAC report can be found in its entirety at www.ncac.org/issues/internetfilters.html/

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