Blocking Software Gets a Failing Grade
A Joint Report of Peacefire and EPIC
This report examines a software filtering product called "Bess," manufactured by N2H2, Inc. The purpose of this report is to determine whether the software, as used in a typical school setting, blocks access to political and educational webpages that are appropriate for schoolchildren. Our conclusion is that many such pages are indeed blocked. This report makes no effort to establish whether this pattern is widespread, the result of flaws in the software, or other factors. It simply demonstrates that many web pages that would otherwise be available to students in schools are blocked when the software filter is in use.
According to N2H2, their software products are in use in 17,000 schools, which is over forty percent of all U.S. schools, affecting over 13 million students. Furthermore, Congress is currently debating whether to make this type of software mandatory in schools and libraries which receive federal funds. On this basis we believe that the study is both representative and timely.
The incidents reported below were confirmed both on an N2H2 proxy (Bess) in use in the real world and on a recently-downloaded trial copy of the N2H2 Internet Filtering Manager for the home.
Several levels of filtering are available. All tests with the Internet Filtering Manager were performed on "Typical School Filtering." We believe this configuration is likely to be used in most school settings. The categories it targets for blocking are "mature content including inappropriate sexual content, violence, drugs, hate, and profanity."
The following webpages were some of the political and educational pages found to be blocked:Campaign Finance Reform Links. Maintained by Ethan Jones. Links to pro- and anti-reform groups, bills pending before Congress, and state-by-state listings of laws and databases.
Campaign Finance Reform Talking Points. A primer for Libertarians on the subject of campaign finance reform: how to persuasively discuss the topic with those who believe differently. The remainder of this website concerns many other political issues, and the entire website is blocked.
ECM Publishers. The home of a dozen newspapers in Minnesota, this website contains a wealth of information and endorsements of candidates at the federal, state, and local levels, including a special "Election 2000" section.
How a Bill Becomes a Law. A brief lesson plan for teachers, to help them explain the legislative process to their students. Includes links to valuable net resources.
The Traditional Values Coalition, "the largest non-denominational, grassroots church lobby in America." Ironically, their homepage currently has a strong statement supporting the use of blocking software in our schools and libraries.
Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure.
American Government and Politics, a class taught at St. John's University by Dr. Brian L. Werner. Prospective high school students considering applying to St. John's are unable to read over his syllabus and read his commentary on the textbook, "The Play of Power."
The Circumcision Information and Research Pages stand at the crossroads of political activism and medical research, valuable for students interested in both subjects. Quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Physician's Oath, the site encourages "all men, women and children" to participate. The site contains no nudity and has won the "Select Parenting Site" award from ParenthoodWeb.
The War Resisters League looks at the U.S. Federal Budget (FY 1999) and analyzes the total cost of defense spending.
Unpublished Military Photographs 1900-1945 are available nowhere else but on this website; a look at the wars and conflicts of early this century from a private photographical collection.
What Is Memorial Day? An essay by Lieutenant Bobby Ross on one of our national holidays. To him it is not just a three-day weekend; the day should be about "reminding. Story telling. Wisdom being passed on from our Veterans to our younger generations." Ironically, his words cannot be passed on to 40% of our schools' younger generation.
The Right to Keep and Bear Arms, by Don Erickson, is blocked to students. In fact, this and dozens, possibly hundreds of other pro-Second-Amendment webpages are blocked at rosie.acmecity.com. This is the website run by Rosie O'Donnell which offers free web space; because of her views on gun control, the sites she hosts frequently address political topics.
Hillary For President, by those who think Hillary Clinton deserves better than just a Senate seat. A grassroots effort to bring the current First Lady the post of Chief Executive.
The Smoking Gun is a website that collects documents about current events, for example, a factsheet on Osama bin Laden, or the police citation recently given to Al Gore Jr.
Courting Votes in Alabama, by Winthrow E. Johnson. "Concerned about judges & judicial activism, how trial lawyers scam the system, tort reform, voting abuse by absentee ballot, and the judicial coup? This book narrates the events surrounding the 1994 Alabama Chief Justice election..." Information about this book is blocked at both its separate websites.
"People Are The Boss" - a powerful credo from a Malaysian movement dedicated to democratic control of their government. "People are masters of their countries and boss to their governments." We do not know whether this webpage is blocked by Malaysia; we do know it is blocked in American schools.
Our Constitution Needs Another Amendment. Not the U.S. Constitution - this is from the nation of India.
Voices of Citizens Together puts forth strong conservative views on subjects like immigration and voter fraud.
Soho Vigil: A Personal View. The Chorus Chairmain of the London Gay Men's Chorus shares his views on how a hate bombing affected his community, and about the outpouring of support following that act of terror.
Yarden High School Homepage. A Jewish high school in Ma'ale Efraim, a settlement in the Israeli Jordan Valley, brings a unique perspective which American students might find valuable. Not just this website, but also most of the other sites it links to, are blocked.
Ron Wade's Political Memoribilia Page, with political campaign buttons from Abe Lincoln to George W. Bush.
Don't Tread On Me, "home to right-minded conservatives." Inviting message postings about right-leaning candidates.
Herb's Utah Pictures - many beautiful photographs of national parks taken in Utah and also in Northern Arizona, Washington and California.
We found a wide range of educational, cultural, historical and political information blocked by the software filter we examined. Contrary to the views expressed by some lawmakers that these programs block access to only offensive material, we found instead that the program will block access to web sites that are not only non-offensive but would be appropropriate and useful for students in school. We agree with N2H2, the manufacturer, that "In filtering, quality and accuracy are critical. It may be better not to filter at all, than to do so poorly." But their program lacks both accuracy and quality, and therefore receives a failing grade.
"BESS, the Internet Retriever" Examined (Peacefire 1998)
Faulty Filters: How Content Filters Block Access to Kid-Friendly Information on the Internet (EPIC 1997)
Filters and Freedom: Free Speech Perspectives on Internet Content Controls (EPIC 1999)
Passing Porn, Banning the Bible: N2H2's Bess in public schools (Censorware Project 1999)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jamie McCarthy is a computer programmer who has been examining the flaws in blocking software since 1996. He co-authored a July 1999 report that also revealed flaws in Bess (N2H2's response was to block the report; it remains blocked to this day). He may be reached at 616-375-7528 or firstname.lastname@example.org (email preferred).