Who chooses what to filter? Part 2



Here is another recent case that illustrates the transparency and accountability issues that affect national level filtering.

The School District of Palm Beach County uses BlueCoat’s WebFilter to block content that BlueCoat classifies as “Gay/Lesbian”, including prominent advocacy groups, but not sites that denounce homosexuality. There are two issues here: 1) the decision to block Gay/Lesbian content and 2) the classification of web sites as Gay/Lesbian.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries to install filtering systems in order to receive E-Rate funding. The filtering systems are to block access to “visual depictions” that are “(a) are obscene, (b) are child pornography, or (c) are harmful to minors” (from FCC Fact Sheet).

The leap from pictures to entire web sites is one that i did not notice earlier, but is a significant case of mission creep. It is even more significant in the context of the decision of what specific content categories to filter.

The decision to block Gay/Lesbian content category, supplied by BlueCoat, seems to have been made by the system adminstrator based on “common sense”:

Shawn Brinkman, a systems specialist at the District, explained the decision to block gay and lesbian issues websites by citing concerns about the appropriateness of such websites for younger students.

“We have to make judgments for all our users, which include Pre-K users,” Brinkman said. “We don’t have the technology to disallow and allow for certain age groups.”

Brinkman said that the decision was one made on “common sense.”

“I think common sense says [these websites are not] appropriate for four- or five-year-olds,” he said, adding that these topics featured on those websites are ones parents would probably want to discuss with their children.

Now, there isn’t much “common sense” in blocking human rights sites. And it certainly extends beyond the CIPA requirements. It shows that although the system was put into place based on a narrow set of guidelines with the expressed purpose of protecting children from content such as pornography it has been extended without oversight and left to basically ad-hoc decisions based on the “common sense” of an administrator.

The second part of this concerns how BlueCoat classifies sites. Sites that are against homophobia are classified as “Gay/Lesbian” while homophobic sites are classified as “Health” and “Political/Activist Groups.” BlueCoat’s classification of sites into secret block lists also determine what sites the School District of Palm Beach County’s students can have access to.

One comment.

  1. […] Update: I should have linked to Nart Villeneuve’s insightful post at Internet Censorship Explorer on library / school filtering under CIPA, and the associated problems with “mission creep.” […]

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