"It's not a crime to be smarter than your parents."
November 7, 2000
Two blocking software, or censorware, products were tested to see if they filter out political candidates. Settings typically used in a library or school were tested. Numerous politicians were found to be censored by this software, which collectively is used in tens of thousands of schools and libraries across the country.
Today, many U.S. high school students will be voting for the first time. For non-voting students, classroom discussions of current events will be dominated by election news and student opinions about the views of different political candidates. For many of these students, the Internet will be the source of much of the information they have gathered about those running for office.
Peacefire tested the Web sites of political candidates from a variety of parties, to see which were blocked by N2H2 Bess and Cyber Patrol, two of the most popular blocking software programs used in schools.
The URL's for candidates' campaign homepages were taken from NetElection.org, an informational site about 2000 election campaigns in the U.S.
N2H2 claims that their product is used in 17,000 schools, blocking the web access of thirteen million students across the United States. Cyber Patrol also claims that "17,000 schools and school districts across the nation" use their product.
Both companies claim that all sites blocked by their product, are reviewed by company employees first, to ensure that the sites meet their published criteria. We evaluated this claim against the evidence of the political sites which were blocked.
Both companies keep secret the list of sites that they block, but third-party researchers can discover blocked sites through trial and error.
Cyber Patrol blocked four Republicans' Web sites, five Democrats' Web sites, and one Libertarian candidate's Web site. (Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of candidate's Web sites that are blocked by Cyber Patrol; these are just the sites we happened to find.)
Cyber Patrol claims: "In evaluating a site for inclusion in the list, we consider the effect of the site on a typical twelve year-old searching the Internet unaccompanied by a parent or educator" [emphasis added], but the program is also heavily marketed to schools and libraries, where of course many Internet users are registered voters.
The following sites were all blocked by Cyber Patrol with only the "Full Nudity", "Partial Nudity" and "Sexual Acts/Text" categories enabled, except for http://www.doggettforcongress.com/, which was blocked under "Questionable/Illegal/Gambling". (Cyber Patrol's official definitions for these categories are published online, but none of the sites we found to be blocked contained anything remotely "pornographic".)
Some of the Democratic candidates' sites blocked by Cyber Patrol include:
Some of the Republican candidates' sites blocked by Cyber Patrol include:
Only one Libertarian candidate was found to be blocked by Cyber Patrol:
In Federalist Paper 57, Alexander Hamilton remarked that our Congressmen need not come from the ranks of the landed gentry:
"Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth ... is permitted to fetter the judgement or disappoint the inclination of the people."
The landowners of the 21st century are those with great domain names for their websites. But many of our political candidates run their campaigns on a shoestring, and use free-hosting services to save money.
Click thumbnail for a screen shot of the N2H2 configuration panel, which describes the settings in effect under a "typical school setting".
Unfortunately, it is exactly this class of candidate which N2H2 discriminates against on its self-described "Typical School Filtering" setting. This setting blocks all free-hosting services.
However, the program's Help information does not describe this fact, leaving the parents or school administration to believe that all blocked sites are similar to Playboy, or the racist group National Association for the Advancement of White People.
And we have discovered that this type of blocking discriminates disproportionately against conservative and third-party candidates. Five Republicans and six Libertarians are blocked because of this setting, but only one Democrat. And thirteen other third-party candidates have their websites blocked as well.
Take for example Robert Canales, "An Independent Minded Republican," who is running for the House in California Congressional District 34. His site looks professional and is loaded with information, including online chat, news from the AP wire, and position papers. His website has been blocked from thirteen million U.S. students.
Other blocked Republican websites include:
Only two Democratic candidates were blocked in our random sample: Brian Pedigo, 2nd District, Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Ed Markey. It should be noted that Ed Markey is the incumbent, having held office for over twenty years, and that his website is blocked on the "minimal filtering" setting (i.e. it is categorized as Hate, Illegal, Pornography, and/or Violence).
The Libertarian Party was especially hard-hit in Missouri. Not only were their candidates from the 2nd, 4th, and 5th District blocked, but the Missouri Libertarian Party website was itself blocked.
The blocked Libertarian Party websites include:
"That's what happens when you have a government policy that sounds good, blocking objectionable material: once they have that power, they can use it to block other kinds of material."
Other blocked political candidates include:
"This type of software can be very useful in private organizations to keep employees from engaging in non-work related web surfing on company time. The software is also useful in schools and public learning facilities (like libraries) to prevent children from accessing pornography. The fact that it is being used to filter out a website for legitimate candidates speaking about the issues and their candidacies is a disservice to the American voters and the FEC and Secretary of the Senate should be fully investigating the matter to find the responsible persons behind the censorship...The guilty party should be brought to trial and prosecuted under the FEC election laws for tampering."
- Nikki Oldaker
While blocking software companies often justify their errors by pointing out that they are quickly corrected, this does not help any of the candidates listed above. Their campaigns have been sabotaged in our public schools and libraries, and corrections made after Election Day do not help them at all.
Both companies claim that all sites blocked by their product are reviewed by company employees first, to ensure that the sites meet their published criteria. We believe that this claim is false, in light of the numerous Web sites of political candidates that were blocked by the two programs.
Peacefire is a group representing the free-speech rights of internet users under 18, and is located at www.peacefire.org. Its last report examined censorship of political speech (not candidates specifically) by N2H2 Bess. Peacefire members Haselton and McCarthy are also co-founders of The Censorware Project.