Searching in the Dark

Net Filtering Software Censors Much More Than Porn

Strange things happen when you seek drug policy information using filters meant to protect kids from the evils of the Net. Try reaching the drug law reform think tank the Lindesmith Center using Cyber Patrol, the highest-rated online screening product—which is now part of AOL's family filter and used by 9 million people. You can't connect. Try to hit drug czar Barry McCaffrey's site, WHICH TAKES the opposite political perspective, and the site loads easily. Attempt to access the Lycaeum, which includes information on personal drug experiences and even methamphetamine manufacture, and you can access it without a problem.

A search for "marijuana" using Searchopolis, the free Web-based search meant to be safe for children, also produces surprising results. Searchopolis uses the same technology as Bess, the server-based filter that leads the market for educational and library filtering and was recently tested in the city's public schools. Though unfiltered searches find a predominance of marijuana law reform sites as well as government institutions and think tanks, on Searchopolis, the top 10 hits are government and anti-marijuana sites. Presuming student laziness while researching homework—quite often a sound assumption—you can figure that most NYC kids are safe from alternative perspectives online.

However, if you do click to the next page, you get "Slick Willie Brand" marijuana bags (a party gag? or perhaps the search engine likes Republican perspectives?) and then, finally, some reform sites. An advertisement for the stealth government site freevibe.com, which pretends to offer unbiased information but is actually a project of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, appears.

illustration: George Bates

If they worked as advertised, these filters would be dangerous, with the ability to exclude some political perspectives while offering access to others. Though many people assume these blockers exclude only porn, they can also keep out information that "promotes" drug use, offers recipes for bombs, or contains violence or even information on sex education. As the Cyber Patrol example indicates, the technology isn't quite there yet—but it is clear that drug warriors, upset over the dominance of the reform perspective on the Net, are fighting back.

Used only by parents in their own homes, this software is simply a tool to screen out information inappropriate for kids. But there has been a great push to install it in schools and libraries; and while one bill to mandate it in these institutions recently failed in Congress, presidential candidate John McCain is pushing another. (Yet another bill, which passed the Senate and was introduced in the House, would impose criminal penalties on owners of Web sites that "directly or indirectly advertise" drug use.)

Filtering software is estimated to reach one-third of American households with Net access. Filter manufacturers have focused on schools and libraries and are currently aiming their marketing efforts at getting businesses to buy the software to "increase productivity" by limiting Net access. Schools have already begun to recognize the problems with these filters as students find that access to research material they need is blocked. New York City public schools currently use a program called I-gear, made by Symantec. Recently, students found that they could access Operation Rescue but not Planned Parenthood, and that drug-related sites, the National Rifle Association, and even a reference from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath were barred. The filter also blocked access to major news organizations and scientific and medical groups.

Other districts have had difficulties as well. Jonathan Wallace of Censorware.org, a collaborative that examines and fights blocking software, says his group was contacted by high school students in Ohio who were having difficulty researching teen drug use for a homework assignment because so many sites were blocked by Bess. While allowing searches for "marijuana," Bess is set not to search the word "heroin" or "cocaine," and bars pages that contain these words.

Some software manufacturers recognize the political nature of their products and let users see the criteria that determine which sites are blocked and customize the filter. One filter, Surfwatch, says explicitly on its Web site that it doesn't block sites devoted to drug legalization, recognizing this as political, rather than drug-promoting, speech.

Susan Getgood, vice president in charge of Cyber Patrol for the Learning Company, says, "Our criteria are carefully crafted based on the appropriateness for children. Medical marijuana isn't blocked and policy material wouldn't be blocked, but it has to be appropriate for a 12-year-old."

Bess's manufacturer, N2H2, says that there is no political agenda in its filtering criteria. "It's based on choice," says CEO Peter Nickerson. "Schools can set up different levels of filtering and can override them if need be. These issues are all subjective, and what someone decides is appropriate to block in South Carolina may not be appropriate to block in California."

Other manufacturers recognize the political potential of filters and use it to their own ends. The most notorious of these is Cybersitter, which would not allow you to read this page on the Web, nor Mother Jones, the NOW site, any gay or lesbian sites, or even sites devoted to arguments about software filters. When one teenager set up a site in 1996 to protest filtering software, his name and site were blocked by Cybersitter and the company contacted his service provider to try to cut his account. Two years later, the company sent an e-mail bomb to another opponent. (Cybersitter said it was done by a "frustrated technical support employee.") Cybersitter's right-wing agenda is not mentioned on its site or in any of its promotional material, and since it keeps its filtering criteria private, consumers can't easily tell how it skews searches.

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