Blocking Software Reports
WebSENSE is a blocking software program aimed mainly at the corporate market but also used in some schools. In addition to the errors in their database, WebSENSE also attracted attention in July 2002 when they began publishing daily lists of pornographic Web sites that were not blocked by their competitors.
The first published report criticizing WebSENSE came from the Censorware Project in June 1998: Protecting Judges from Liza Minelli: The WebSENSE Censorware at Work". The Censorware Project had found in April 1998 that federal courts in at least 22 states were using WebSENSE on their networks for all employees, including judges. The follow-up report listed some sites blocked by WebSENSE as "pornography", including a Liza Minelli fan page and the Jewish Teens site (both now offline).
Peacefire most recently tested WebSENSE in November 2001; below is a list of some of the sites that we found to be blocked. (For each site listing, the words "Blocked as..." are linked to a screen shot showing the "Blocked" message that we encountered from WebSENSE when trying to access the page.) Some, if not all, of these sites may be unblocked after this page is published, but the goal of the test was to obtain a snapshot of what sort of sites are blocked by WebSENSE at any given point in time -- so even if the specific errors are fixed, that may not mean that the underlying problem was corrected.
WebSENSE does not claim that the sites on its block list have necessarily been reviewed by employees before being added to the list. Their Database FAQ states that in 2000, "more than 25% of the database" was posted "without human interaction". So some of the blocked sites may be attributable to computer error (e.g. the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling blocked as a "gambling" site), but that wouldn't explain how other sites such as the Red Cross of Navarra, Spain, got blocked. (WebSENSE does have a "keyword blocking" feature, but all of the following sites were blocked with keyword blocking turned off.)
WebSENSE's comparison sheet states that they filter Internet access for about 9 million users, mostly in the corporate market, but also in some schools and libraries. As of November 2001, the company is also angling to filter Internet access for all of Saudi Arabia, under contract to the Saudi government. (See "Companies Compete to Provide Saudi Internet Veil", New York Times, November 19, 2001.)
WebSENSE publishing lists of porn links
In July 2002, WebSENSE begun publishing daily lists of pornographic Web sites that were not blocked by two of their competitors' products, SurfControl (made by the same company that makes Cyber Patrol) and SmartFilter. Their stated goal was to demonstrate that WebSENSE was superior because they blocked these sites and their competitors didn't, although clearly there could have been just as many sites that were blocked by their competitors and not blocked by WebSENSE.
However, anybody -- including students from schools that were using SmartFilter and SurfControl -- could access the list, simply by clicking a button on the WebSENSE site agreeing that they were over 18. Even though SmartFilter and SurfControl would add the published sites to their blacklists immediately, schools who were using those programs would not receive their list updates until the next day. This meant that the sites would remain accessible on those networks for most of the full 24 hours after they were published by WebSENSE, a company which had once issued a press release saying that the Internet "delivers thousands of new objectionable Web sites each day -- sites that are directly accessible through our nation's classrooms".
MSNBC reported on this decision by the company, and researcher Seth Finkelstein did some tests which showed that some of the sites that WebSENSE was claiming were "not blocked", were in fact blocked by their competitors. According to the MSNBC article, SurfControl and SmartFilter said that they would not block the WebSENSE site, even though anyone with access to WebSENSE.com would be able to get a daily list of pornographic sites not blocked by those two products.
After five months, WebSENSE took down their free-porn-links page and replaced it with a page which said, "We no longer provide a daily list of adult content sites on our Web site because our competitors were adding these sites to their database immediately." They remain the only blocking software company that has ever tried this technique.
Standards for blocking "hate speech"
WebSENSE shows evidence of applying a double standard in deciding whether to block a site as "hate speech". Their category descriptions page gives the following definition for the "Racism/Hate" category:
Sites that promote the identification of racial groups, the denigration or subjection of groups (racially identified or otherwise), or the superiority of any group.
In May 2000, Peacefire anonymously created several "anti-gay" Web pages on free sites such as GeoCities, each site consisting entirely of quotes taken from the Web site of a prominent conservative group such as Focus on the Family. Using anonymous HotMail accounts, we submitted each of these pages to WebSENSE for review. WebSENSE agreed to block three of the four nominated pages as "hate speech" (we did not receive a reply regarding the fourth page).
We then told WebSENSE that four prominent right-wing Web sites were the sources of all the anti-gay quotes on the four Web sites that we created, and asked whether those sites would be blocked as well. WebSENSE did not respond, and did not block the four conservative groups' home pages.
The archives of our correspondence with WebSENSE during this experiment, and the records of where we found the quotes used to create the anti-gay "bait" pages, are online at http://www.peacefire.org/BaitAndSwitch/.
WebSENSE can be contacted at 1 (800) 723-1166 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.