BAIR is one of the few blocking programs whose manufacturer claims that it can recognize and block pornographic images independent of the surrounding text. Technical information on Exotrope's Web site states that images are blocked and recognized based on skin tone, while acknowledging that this can cause errors:
|The BAIR may occasionally overblock non-pornographic images that have flesh tone or other characteristics similar to pornographic visuals.|
Like most censorware programs, BAIR uses a built-in list of "known bad" sites like Playboy.com that are always blocked automatically. However, the BAIR press materials (quoted in our reports below) state that BAIR can also block pornographic images on brand-new sites that are not yet on the program's "bad site" list.
On June 6, 2000, we wrote our first report on the BAIR filter. We selected 50 images at random from different pornographic Web sites and found that none of the images were blocked by BAIR, once we moved the images to a server that wasn't on BAIR's built-in list of sites. Exotrope's main claim -- that BAIR was able to block pornographic images on the fly -- appeared to be completely false. Exotrope confirmed by phone that we were using the software correctly, and said that the non-blocking of all pornographic images must have been a glitch.
Our June 6 report included detailed instructions on how to reproduce our results. We gave the news of our discovery as an exclusive to Wired News, who published their article "Smut Filter Blocks All But Smut" on June 20, 2000. Unfortunately, the Wired article ended up taking credit for the work in our report, repeating our experiments and calling it "an investigation by Wired News". The accusations of plagiarism ended up igniting more controversy than the report itself.
But the Wired News article did reveal this statement from Exotrope: "Exotrope officials say they plan to fix the errors within the next month." Since the article was published on June 20, that gave Exotrope a new "deadline" of July 20, 2000 -- the exact date when Michael Stephani, President and CEO of Exotrope, was scheduled to testify before the COPA Commission, a congressionally appointed panel studying blocking software.
We published our second report on BAIR on July 19, 2000. For our second report, we discovered that the BAIR filter had slightly improved its accuracy rate, so that it was now blocking pornographic images at a higher rate than completely random images. (About 2/3 of all pornographic images were blocked, while only about 1/6 of non-pornographic images were.) However, we also used a random sample of pictures of people's faces, and found that BAIR also blocked 2/3 of all face pictures -- the same as the blocking rate for pornographic images.