Global human rights groups blocked by Web censoring software
December 12, 2000
Prompted by numerous student reports of being unable to access Amnesty International and other human-rights-related Web sites from school computers, Peacefire tested several popular blocking programs used in schools, to see which of these sites were blocked. We configured the programs to block only the kinds of Web sites that would be blocked in a typical school setting (pornography, drugs, violence, etc.), so that purely political sites should have been accessible. But we found several Amnesty-related sites blocked by the software we tested, including several documents on Amnesty.org itself blocked by CYBERsitter, chapters of Amnesty International Israel blocked by Cyber Patrol and SurfWatch, and several human rights groups blocked by Bess.
Notes on testing: Our method of collecting "test sites" was unscientific (running Web searches to find human-rights-related Web sites). Of the sites that we found to be blocked, not all of these were relevant enough to be listed here. Also, this is obviously not an exhaustive list of all political sites blocked by these products. For a more scientific study of percentage error rates for blocking software, see Peacefire's Study of average error rates for censorware programs, published 10/23/2000.
We have included screen shots of the sites being blocked by the different programs; in the description of each site, the words "blocked by [productname]" are linked to a screen shot of the "blocked site" message. Sites listed as blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit" are blocked in one of the three Cyber Patrol categories "Full Nudity", "Partial Nudity" or "Sexual Acts/Text". (SurfWatch has a single category for "sexually explicit" sites.)
Although Cyber Patrol and SurfWatch are now both owned by SurfControl Corporation and blocked many of the same sites, the lists of sites blocked by the two programs are not identical. (SurfWatch is no longer being sold, but existing SurfWatch customers can still pay for weekly updates to the SurfWatch blocked-site list.)
"It's extremely unfortunate that students in schools across the United States are inadvertently being denied access to portions of Amnesty International Web sites by these software programs. These students should be lauded -- not thwarted -- for their efforts to obtain important human rights information."
- Karen Schneider, Director of Communications, Amnesty International USA
Amnesty International Israel
The English portion of the site includes information on the Junior Urgent Action Network, for Israeli youth aged 13 to 18, to educate Israeli teenagers on issues related to human rights. The Amnesty International Israel page is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol.
Amnesty International at New York University
The student-run chapter of AI at the NYU school of law. (SurfWatch currently blocks all of http://www.lawstudents.org/ as "sexually explicit"; LawStudents.org the home page of the Law Students Network, which is an online legal studies information center created by an NYU law student.)
Canadian Labour Congress
A coalition of Canadian labor unions promoting health care and job safety within Canada and abroad, the CLC worked with Amnesty International in creating the International Tribunal on Workers’ Human Rights. The CLC Youth Committee focuses on youth involvement and rights of young workers. The Canadian Labour Congress site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
Algeria Watch monitors human rights violations in Algeria. The site includes a November 2000 report from Amnesty International on the Algerian human rights situation. The Algeria Watch Web site is currently blocked by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN)
A U.S.-based nonprofit organization that raises awareness of human rights violations committed against Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, and documented by groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. AKIN's Web site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
Strategic Pastoral Action Network
An non-violence advocacy organization that publishes action alerts pertaining to human rights abuses in different countries. SpanWeb.org is blocked by SurfWatch in the "Drugs/Alcohol" category.
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
IGLHRC is based in the U.S. but spotlights human rights abuses against gays and lesbians abroad, with regularly published news bulletins and action alerts. IGLHRC.org is currently blocked by I-Gear in the category "Sex/Acts".
Dalitstan works to defend the human rights of Dalits, the class of "Black Untouchables" living in India, who are the victims of widespread discrimination and oppression under the Indian caste system. Dalitstan.org is currently blocked by SurfWatch under the category "Violence/Hate Speech".
Human Rights for Workers
An online campaign against sweatshops and supporting job safety as a fundamental human right. The Human Rights for Workers site is currently blocked by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
Mumia Solidaritäts Index (in German only)
A German site opposing the execution of American death row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, with links to Amnesty International documents that have called attention to Mumia's case. Mumia.De is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol and by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
The Milarepa Fund
The Milarepa Fund raises awareness of violence against civilians and other human rights violations in Tibet. The site's mission statement calls for more non-violent action and states, "we support the youth of the world who represent a powerful vehicle to achieve that change". The Milarepa Fund Web site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
A bi-monthly magazine that chronicles efforts to bring peace to areas such as Kosovo and Palestine, and contains editorials arguing against military intervention. The Peace Magazine site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
Bonn International Center for Conversion
BICC promotes and facilitates the processes whereby people, skills, technology, equipment, and financial and economic resources can be shifted away from the defense sector and applied to alternative civilian uses. The BICC site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
Canada Asia Pacific Resource Network
CAPRN promotes solidary among labor unions and non-governmental organzations in the Asia Pacific, and is allied with groups such as Amnesty International on issues such as CAPRN's campaign against violence in East Timor. The CAPRN site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
Sisterhood Is Global Institute
SIGI promotes human rights issues at a global level, with focuses on women's rights issues in countries where violence against women is widespread. SIGI.org is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol and by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
Metro Network for Social Justice
MNSJ is a non-partisan alliance of groups promoting anti-poverty campaigns and other causes in the Toronto area. MNSJ observed International Human Rights Day 1998 by inviting speakers from Amnesty International to talk about getting involved with AI. MNSJ.org is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit".
Society for Peace, Unity, and Human Rights for Sri Lanka
SPUR documents "ethnic cleansing" and violence between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the mostly Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka. The SPUR Web site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol as "sexually explicit". (This blocked site focuses almost exclusively on violence by Tamils against Sinhalese, but N2H2's Bess program makes up for this by blocking TamilRights.org, which describes the conflict from the Tamil perspective.)
Human Rights & Tamil People
Documents government and police violence against the minority Hindu Tamils living in Sri Lanka. TamilRights.org is currently blocked by Bess under the "minimal filtering" configuration.
Documents the poverty and danger facing street children in Central America. Casa Alianza is currently blocked by Bess under the "minimal filtering" configuration.
Friends of Sean Sellers
A memorial to a writer with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) who was executed in 1999 for murders that he committed at the age of 16; the site includes links to Sean's writings but also takes a political stance against the death penalty (specifically, execution for crimes committed by a minor, which is legal only in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States). SeanSellers.com is currently blocked by Bess under the "typical school filtering" configuration (but not under the "minimal filtering" configuration, which blocks fewer sites).
The International Coptic Congress
Chronicles violence against Coptic Christians living in Egypt, with documentation from outside groups including Amnesty International and foreign news agencies. The International Coptic Congress web site is currently blocked by Cyber Patrol and by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit", and also by Bess. (Bess only blocks the site under the "typical school filtering" configuration, not the "minimal filtering" configuration.)
In a compromise with censors, the webmasters have put pictures of victims of police violence on a separate page labeled "not suitable for children", although none of the pictures would be illegal for people under 18 -- even in the U.S, which has some of the most restrictive laws in the developed world regarding what people under 18 can view. (Ironically, other human rights sites that are listed in this report, criticize the U.S. for being the only industrialized democracy that considers minors old enough to be executed under the law, even though American laws also come closest to prohibiting minors from viewing footage of police violence.) In any case, SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol block the site as a "sexually explicit" site, which is obviously incorrect (click for a screen shot of categories enabled when testing with Cyber Patrol, or a screen shot of categories enabled when testing with SurfWatch).
The International Conference Combating Child Pornography on the Internet
The official site for an anti-child-pornography conference that took place from 29 September to 1 October 1999 in Vienna. The conference Web site is currently blocked by I-Gear in the category "Sex/Acts".
A site documenting human rights abuses from the Djibouti government and supporting Aref Mohamed Aref, a Djibouti lawyer at risk of imprisonment for criticisms of the government. The Liberte Aref site is currently blocked by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
A site chronicling human rights abuses in Belarus and criticizing the current government led by Alexander Lukashenko. (The English version of the site can be found at http://charter97.org/English/.) Charter97.org is currently blocked by SurfWatch in the "Drugs/Alcohol" category.
Commissioner of the Council of the Baltic Sea States
The Commissioner, based in Denmark, publishes an annual report on the state of human rights and democratic development in Baltic nations. The CBSS Commissioner site is currently blocked by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
Green Brick Road
A directory of resources for students and teachers of global environmental education. Their catalog of books related to global education includes titles on human rights and environmental protection. The Green Brick Road site is currently blocked by SurfWatch as "sexually explicit".
Parish Without Borders
A global network of Catholic communities focusing on outreach in developing nations. The site includes a section for action alerts pertaining to human rights abuses in different countries. SurfWatch currently blocks Parish Without Borders in the "Violence/Hate Speech" category.
Home page of the Kosova Committee in Denmark, an organization of Kosova expatriates and supporters of peacemaking and self-determination in the former Yugoslavia. Kosova Web is currently blocked by SurfWatch in the "Drugs/Alcohol" category.
Finally, two Web sites which have nothing to do with human rights,
but were discovered to be blocked after running a search for Web
sites that support Amnesty International:
ArtDogs (http://www.artdogs.com/) and
The Official Website of Suzanne Vega (http://www.vega.net/)
Two musical artists whose Web sites state that a portion of their proceeds go to benefit Amnesty International. (Suzanne Vega is best known for her song "Luka", about a victim of domestic violence.)
Bess currently blocks ArtDogs.com and blocks Vega.net both under the "typical school filtering" configuration.
Of the programs that we tested, all of them use some degree of keyword filtering (i.e. blocking a page based on its content, rather than because the page URL is on the program's blacklist), but most programs only block a page if a banned word appears in the URL or in the page title. CYBERsitter was the only program we tested that actually blocked entire pages based on keywords appearing in the middle of the page.
CYBERsitter keeps an internal database of "banned" words and phrases. If one of these words appears on a given page, CYBERsitter blocks the rest of the page from loading. (CYBERsitter blocks the page silently, so that the user gets a "Network error" message in their browser, without knowing that the page was blocked by CYBERsitter. But the CYBERsitter administrator can view the log file to see what words caused the page to be blocked.)
CYBERsitter promotional materials state:
"One of CYBERsitter's most unique features is its state of the art phrase filtering function. Rather than block single words or pre-defined phrases, CYBERsitter actually looks at how the word or phrase is used in context. Not only does this provide an excellent blocking method for objectionable text, but it eliminates the possibility that words with double meanings will be inadvertently blocked."
- http://www.cybersitter.com/bellsouth.htm [that page was taken down after this report was published]
Our tests found no basis for this claim; for example, a page containing the sentence: "Reports of shootings in Irian Jaya bring to at least 21 the number of people in Indonesia and East Timor killed or wounded..." was blocked because CYBERsitter detected the phrase "LEAST 21" and blocked the document as "sexually explicit".
The following is a non-exhaustive list of documents on
Amnesty International web sites that were blocked by CYBERsitter,
and the keywords which caused them to be blocked:
keywords: "FOROVER18", "BONG"
keywords: "SEXUALY" [sic]
keywords: "KILLTHEM", "HAVESEX", "FORUNDER18"
keywords: "STRIPSHOW", "HAVESEX"
keywords: "SEXUALNATURE", "SEXUALACTS", "INTERCOURSE"
keywords: "KILLTHEM", "HAVESEX", "18YEARSOFAGE"
The makers of Bess, Cyber Patrol, and SurfWatch all claim that sites are not blocked by their products unless they have been reviewed by employees first to ensure that the sites meet the company's criteria. The CEO of Bess testified to this before a Congressional committee in 1998:
All sites that are blocked are reviewed by N2H2 staff before being added to the block lists.and the statement also appears on the company's Web site:
- Written testimony submitted by N2H2 CEO Peter Nickerson, September 11, 1998
N2H2 employs a full time staff to compile its extensive database of inappropriate sites with a combination of technology and human review processes. This process reduces frustrations associated with "key-word blocking" methods including denied access to sites regarding breast cancer, sex education, religion, and health. Human review is the only way to ensure that appropriate sites are separated from the inappropriate sites. - http://www.n2h2.com/products/c_gn_filtering.htm
SurfWatch similarly claims:
Before adding any site to our database, each site 'candidate' is reviewed by a SurfWatch Content Specialist. Deciphering the gray areas is not something that we trust to technology; it requires thought and sometimes discussion. We use technology to help find site candidates, but rely on thoughtful analysis for the final decision.(Cyber-lawyer James Tyre actually published an essay for The Censorware Project in May 1999, called Sex, Lies, and Censorware, quoting a SurfWatch spokeswoman as saying that sites are often blocked by SurfWatch without being viewed by staff first. However, 18 months later, the opposite claim is still posted on the SurfWatch Web site: "Before adding any site to our database, each site 'candidate' is reviewed by a SurfWatch Content Specialist.")
And Cyber Patrol stated in a recent press release:
This list of inappropriate sites, called the CyberNOT list, has been compiled by a team of professional researchers which over the last five years has reviewed more than one million Web pages. The researchers look at every site, seeking to assure that the filtered material meets the published criteria defining what content is unsuitable for kids.
Our past studies have concluded it is extremely unlikely that these claims by Bess, Cyber Patrol, and SurfWatch are true (see, for example, our study on percentage error rates of different blocking programs), and is is more likely that blocking companies are using automated machines ("spiders") to find Web sites and add them to their blocked-site databases without reviewing them first.
I-Gear and CYBERsitter, on the other hand, do not claim that all sites in their databases have been reviewed for accuracy.
In the days after this report is published, it is likely that the companies mentioned will go into "damage control mode" and remove these mistakes from their lists. This report, however, only examines a minute fraction of sites on the Web; the findings reflect the underlying accuracy rate of the products examined. Since each product blocks at least several hundred thousand sites, the accuracy rate won't change significantly as a result of fixing the errors listed here.