An experiment conducted during the last few months by the free-speech advocacy group Peacefire suggests that many of the leading internet filtering companies apply their criteria inconsistently when choosing which web sites their software should block.

Peacefire took antigay passages word for word from four well-known conservative web sites—Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the official web site of radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger—and created bait web pages using that content.

Through anonymous Hotmail accounts, Peacefire submitted these bait pages to several internet-filtering companies and suggested the pages be blocked because they contained derogatory comments about homosexuality. The filtering programs targeted by Peacefire included SurfWatch, N2H2’s Bess, Cyber Patrol, NetNanny, WebSENSE, and SmartFilter.

These particular programs block offensive web sites based on evaluations made by staff members. Other types of filters, not included in this experiment, block web sites according to keywords that appear on the sites.

The filtering companies contacted by Peacefire all chose to add the bait sites to their lists of sites that should be blocked as “hate speech”—despite the fact that none of the programs filter the four well-known sites from which the content was taken.

Peacefire says it then asked these companies if they would block the original sources of the content, but as of early June, none of the companies had agreed to do so.

“They all blocked the bait pages we submitted to them, and so far, they’re all sort of backpedaling to get out of this situation,” said Bennett Haselton, Peacefire’s founder.

Haselton said the experiment shows these filtering companies, which use subjective criteria for evaluating web content, are inconsistent at best—and might even apply a double standard.

“If they don’t block the original source site, that proves they’re applying their criteria inconsistently, depending on whether the organization has lots of lawyers and fax machines and ability [to create] a high-profile backlash,” Haselton told Wired.

Another reason some makers of filtering software might be hesitant to block the sites of powerful conservative groups: They often have similar goals and marketing alliances. NetNanny, for instance, counts Focus on the Family among its business partners.

The filtering companies, for their part, say overall context is an important consideration when evaluating web sites. Many of their products also give school officials the ability to add or delete sites from the companies’ lists of “blocked” sites, in case educators disagree with any selections.

In response to Peacefire’s charge of double standards, Susan Getgood, vice president and general manager for Cyber Patrol, said, “We are, indeed, reviewing those four sites. We have to determine whether it is intolerance.

“It takes time to review these sites, because they are much larger than the one-page sites of Peacefire’s bait pages,” she said. “If, at the end of our review, we choose not to block these sites, it [will be] because … the content was opinion or because, in context, it was not intolerant.”

N2H2, which sells a server-based internet filter called Bess to K-12 schools, also said it would re-evaluate the four web sites.

“We look at every single page for what it is” and then assign each page to a category like sexually explicit, hate speech, or eCommerce, said Jessica Lyman, director of web analysis for N2H2.

“A lot of these sites change, and we go back and go through these sites,” Lyman said. “It’s impossible to catch every single thing as it comes out, and that’s why we have these processes in place. It allows us to be 90-percent effective.”

Although N2H2, with a staff of 150 people, reviews 10,000 to 15,000 web sites a day, the company said it relies mostly on customer recommendations of which sites to review.

“At the peak of the school season, we were getting 3,000 eMails a day,” Lyman said. “We encourage customers to let us know if there are any inconsistencies. It’s important feedback.”

Peacefire’s “Project Bait and Switch”

N2H2 Inc.

Cyber Patrol

Official Dr. Laura web site

Concerned Women of America

Family Research Council

Focus on the Family