Alaska Filtering



The Anchorage Daily News is reporting that Alaska is using Websense to filter Internet access for State employees to save on bandwith costs. The article states:

For some reason, however, the software also blocks access to the Web sites for liberal political satirist Al Franken and liberal radio programs Air America Radio and Stephanie Miller but not the Web sites for conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.

This is not (neccesarily) a liberal vs. conservative dynamic, but rather one of the inherent problems with filtering technology: categorization. In this case stephaniemiller.com, which does not host a live audio feed or audio files but is about a radio personality, is classified as Streaming Media and airamericaradio.com, which does have a “listen live” link and links to audio files, is classified as Internet Radio and TV while rushlimbaugh.com and billoreilly.com, which both have “listen live” links and links to audio files, are classified as News and Media. The end result is that categorization decisions taken by a private company (decisions that are not subject to review for these lists are the secret) determine what content employees of the state of Alaska can view. Ron Deibert put it best “ceding to commercial entities the responsibility of placing limitations on freedom of speech through tools that are sheltered from close public scrutiny because of intellectual property protections.”

Now, filtering technologies, including Websense, mis-classify sites but they also deliberately classify and block websites such as translation services, which can be used to circumvent the filtering technology. Unlike cases where innocuous sites are classified as pornography when they clearly are not, this case demonstrates another aspect of filtering technology’s problems: rough categorization. Is a site news or entertainment? What if it is both?

The Government of Alaska has listed the Websense categories they have activated.

1. Adult material
2. Gambling
3. Illegal or questionable
4. Tasteless
5. Violence
6. Weapons
7. Advertisements
8. Internet radio or TV
9. Security

The Anchorage Daily News has not listed the specific URLs that were inaccessible, I’ve used the following:

http://www.ofrankenfactor.com/
http://www.al-franken.com/
http://www.airamericaradio.com/
http://www.stephaniemiller.com/
http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/
http://www.billoreilly.com/

Now the Rush & O’reily sites are categorized as “News and Media”, a category that Alaska is not blocking. The Al Franken sites are also categorized as “News and Media” but what is really interesting is that when the preceeding “www” is removed from www.ofrankenfactor.com it is classified as ‘Entertainment”. The same site is classified in two seperate categories depeding on whether or not it is accessed with a “www” or not. It is possible that the Al Franken sites have been re-categorized or that the blocking category “Entertainment” has since been turned on.

The Air America Radio and Stephanie Miller sites are blocked because they fall into the categories of Internet Radio and TV and Streaming Media. The latter falls within the “Websense Enterprise Bandwidth PG ” parent category that includes Internet Radio and TV which has most likely been activated. The www.airamericaradio.com does have a “listen live” link and links to audio files but it also has text news articles. It does appear to meet the criteria for Websense’s Internet Radio and TV category: Sites whose primary purpose is to provide radio or TV programming on the Internet.

However, the www.stephaniemiller.com does not host a live audio feed or audio files. It does link to external sites that provide audio on a page about her radio show. This site defintely does not meet the criteria for Websense’s Streaming Media category: Sites that primarily provide streaming media content, such as movie trailers.

The site www.rushlimbaugh.com, however, does have a “listen live” link and does make audio (and dittocam) files available (for members). The site www.billoreilly.com also contains a “listen live” link as well as links to archives of previous shows (available for premium members). Both clearly meet Websense criteria for the Streaming Media category and/or the Internet Radio and TV category. Yet these sites are classified as News and Media.

URL: http://www.ofrankenfactor.com/
Category: News and Media
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

URL: http://ofrankenfactor.com
Category: Entertainment
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

URL: http://www.al-franken.com/
Category: News and Media
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

URL: http://www.airamericaradio.com/
Category: Internet Radio and TV
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

URL: http://www.stephaniemiller.com/
Category: Streaming Media
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

URL: http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/
Category: News and Media
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

URL: http://www.billoreilly.com/
Category: News and Media
Database version: 92208
Database date: 15 Feb 2005
Product used: Websense Enterprise� v5.1

One comment.

  1. There might be another reason why ofrankenfactor.com specifically is being blocked. The official site for Al Franken’s show is http://www.airamerica.com/alfrankenshow/. Whereas ofrankenfactor.com is owned by someone else and appears to be squatting on the domain, getting people to link to his site instead of the official site. Check out:

    http://onlynone.ithryn.net/2006/01/ofranken-factor-hacked.php

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