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SmartFilter Examined

SmartFilter, from Secure Computing Corporation, was originally designed for the corporate environment, but Secure Computing's "White Paper: Education and the Internet" states that schools as well should be "rightfully concerned about inappropriate content (sex, obscenity and pornography, hate speech, criminal skills and gambling)". Since SmartFilter's list of blocked sites is divided into categories, we tested the filter with those categories enabled -- "sex", "hate speech", "criminal skills" and "gambling". We also enabled the "drugs" category since this could reasonably be expected to be activated in a public school setting.

In a disclaimer elsewhere on their site, Secure Computing describes the "sex" category as encompassing "sexually transmitted diseases, safe-sex, teen pregnancy" along with hard- and soft-core pornography. According to the disclaimer, such topics "are deemed potentially inappropriate for today's typical workplace". The disclaimer does not mention the First Amendment implications for public schools, i.e. whether school administrators have the right to censor information about topics such as teen pregnancy. Their white paper goes on to state that

In school as in the workplace, students should think in terms of "checking their privacy at the door" when accessing the Internet through the school's official Internet connection. They may have the privilege of using a classroom-wide, school-wide or district-wide Internet connection, and therefore, are held accountable to the policies and guidelines that apply to a specific group.

The following sites were blocked in our tests in September 1997:

  • Community United Against Violence -- Community United Against Violence is a 15 year old nonprofit agency preventing hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Their site includes links to pages about domestic violence, prevention of hate crimes, and youth activism.
  • Dutch Organization for Integration of Homosexuality (COC) -- "works to make lesbians and gays accepted by society and gain equal rights by lobbying politicians."
  • Lambda -- "Canadian-based organization that promotes research into lesbian and gay issues and lifestyles for the purpose of public education."
  • The Safer Sex Page, one of the best-known sex education resources on the Web, and a named plaintiff in the successful lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act.
  • Peaceable Texans for Firearms Rights -- supporting gun owner's rights in Texas
  • Marijuana Policy Project -- "full-time lobbying organization in Washington DC persuading members of congress to support medicinal marijuana and reducing harmful marijuana legislation and sentencing."
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse -- official government Web site
  • The Stop AIDS Project -- "prevention info, training manuals, media campaigns, and extensive links to other on-line resources."
  • The Hepatitis Information Network
  • Nizkor, the premier Web site devoted to remembering the Holocaust and refuting claims of Holocaust deniers.
  • The Feminist Majority Foundation online.
  • Mother Jones magazine
  • The National Abortion Rights Action League
  • The Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance
  • Campaign For Our Children -- "a non-profit, abstinence-based teen pregnancy prevention program."
  • United States Information Agency -- official government site. "USIA's mission is to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions and their counterparts abroad."
  • Understanding Islam and the Muslims -- an educational resource site focusing on dispelling prejudicial myths about Islam. Maintained by a University of Oregon student.
  • -- "exists to provide young people with a safe space online to be themselves". A popular educational and social resource site for gay, lesbian, and questioning youth.
  • The American Friends Service Committee -- "a Quaker organization which includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the Quaker belief in the worth of every person and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice."
  • Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development -- "COPRED spreads effective methods of nonviolent social change among diverse racial and socio-economic populations." The organization includes "almost 500 institutional and individual members, including K-12 educators, peace activists, conflict resolution practitioners, university professors and clergy"
  • Oasis Magazine -- magazine whose articles cover topics of interest to gay youth

In August 1997, Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson of Minnesota announced that school districts would be encouraged to apply for a grant to receive SmartFilter filtering software for their networks (see WCCO Channel 4000 article). Although a press release from Secure Computing described the arrangement as a $9 million donation to the Minnesota public school system, a report prepared by one school official revealed that the "grant" waived only the $6,000 purchase fee. Schools would still be required to pay $1,800 per year for continued updates of the blocked site list. The report also states that about 50 school districts have applied for the grants as of August 1997; it was unclear how many of those would actually be using the software.

SmartFilter is also used by Flinders University in Australia to censor student Internet access, one of the few universities known to be using filtering software.

More articles in the news about SmartFilter