Filtering feud

Thanks for your November article on the release of “Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report,” the first major research report from the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship (“Report calls filters ‘hopelessly flawed,'” Page One). As we explain in the introduction to the report, internet filtering is a major public policy issue, and presenting the available information about the actual operation of filters in one place and in readily accessible form hopefully will contribute important information to the policy debate.

The article quotes statements from two representatives of filter manufacturers, however, that are highly misleading and should not go unanswered. First, David Burt, a longtime promoter of filtering and now a spokesperson for N2H2, the manufacturer of Bess, is quoted as claiming that our report shows an “accuracy rate of 99.99 percent” for Bess. This is ridiculous, as Burt well knows. As I wrote to him after he first made this assertion, “in summarizing the findings of over 70 tests and studies, we did not attempt to give an exhaustive list of all blocked sites. Indeed, that would have made the report far too long. Instead, we gave examples of blocked sites. It is therefore highly misleading for N2H2 to claim that our meta-study found only 90 sites wrongly blocked by Bess.”

In addition, of course, the major problem with filters is that their massive overblocking is based on mechanical algorithms (sophisticated but nonetheless mindless sets of keywords). No test or study could begin to identify all the hundreds of thousands if not millions of sites that are blocked through this decontextualized, mechanistic form of censorship. Burt knows this, so his PR claims are particularly disingenuous.

Which leads to the second quote, from a representative of SurfControl stating that filtering products “have not relied on key word filtering for years.” The manufacturers have been making this claim of late—brushing off previous reports of often absurd overblocking by saying the technology has much improved—but they’re awfully short on specifics. And no matter how much they dress it up in technological language, the fact is that they must rely on mechanical blocking, because no team of human beings could do any sort of intelligent review of over a billion web sites, many of which change daily and have thousands of pages of text.

Internet filtering has become a major industry, with products aggressively marketed. Decisions about what gets blocked are made by private companies, often with ideological agendas in addition to profit motives. Americans, minors and adults alike, should not have decisions about what they can access in schools and libraries made by these private entrepreneurs—at least not without accurate information about past performance.

–Marjorie Heins

Director, Free Expression Policy Project

National Coalition Against Censorship

New York, N.Y.

Wireless coverage

I enjoyed Nora Carr’s article, “Add firepower to your school communications with ‘pocket rockets'” (Stakeholder & Community Relations, October). As technology manager for an intermediate educational service agency in Wisconsin, I’ve been tracking the emergence of personal digital assistants. I agree that they have the potential for replacing laptops as the tool of choice, both for staff and students.

In my mind, the key to turning the hype of the wireless revolution into reality is doing something about coverage. It is not the case that these devices can communicate anywhere—anytime. That concept only applies in areas with adequate wireless coverage, and that area is very small in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, SBC Communications seems to hold the monopoly on building out the infrastructure to expand coverage here, and we’re seeing no progress in expanding their service coverage.

As with previous waves of technology, until the infrastructure reaches critical mass, little happens in developing the end devices. For example, major functionality is blossoming in cell phones, but only recently. It’s taken more than a few years for the infrastructure to build out to the point that it’s almost ubiquitous.

Once again, thanks for your perspective. I look forward to putting a Cybiko device in my teenager’s hands.

–Mark Haslanger

Technology Manager

Cooperative Educational

Service Agency #6

Oshkosh, Wis.