A report released Feb. 25 by the Responsible Netizen Project of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education raises questions about the link between conservative religious organizations and several internet filtering solutions, including three used widely in public schools.

The report, titled “Filtering Software: The Religious Connection,” examines eight companies’ relationships with conservative Christian organizations. According to the report, three companies with a significant school presence—N2H2 Inc. of Seattle, Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif., and 8e6 Technologies Inc. of Orange, Calif.—also market their products to conservative religious internet service providers (ISPs), while the other five companies have expressed conservative religious philosophies.

Of these latter five, four have begun targeting the school market in response to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires schools to install a “technology protection measure” to help shield students from online material that is harmful to minors.

Based on these connections—and on the companies’ own descriptions of the categories their products are designed to block—the university’s report surmises that conservative biases might exist in the way these companies categorize web sites when putting together their “block” lists. It further implies that at least one company, N2H2, has sought to downplay its connection to the religious right.

“The existence of these relationships … raises the concern that the filtering products used in schools are inappropriately preventing students from accessing certain materials based on religious or other inappropriate bias,” the report says. “This situation raises concerns related to students’ constitutionally protected rights of access to information and excessive entanglement of religion with schools.”

N2H2 spokesman David Burt rejected the notion that a conservative or religious bias might exist in his company’s filtering service. He also said there is no affiliation whatsoever between his company and any religious organizations, “outside of some of our customer base.”

“We try very hard not to be biased—we don’t have social or political categories on our list, as other companies do,” Burt said. “The Mormon Church is a customer of ours, yes, but it is absurd to say that … we reflect [its] views, because we have customers from all across the political and religious spectrum.”

Eric Lundbohm, director of marketing for 8e6 Technologies, also defended his company’s filtering service against suggestions of bias.

“Our success in the marketplace depends on our ability to [categorize web sites] accurately,” he said. “We have thousands of customers that test that [ability] every day, and in a free-market society, the [companies] that meet their customers’ needs the best will survive. If bias existed, the marketplace would weed us out. Our customers would say [our service] was not the solution they were paying us to provide.”

The report notes that such bias, if it does exist, would be impossible to prove, because the companies it examines won’t reveal their lists of web sites blocked within each category. But its theories could generate momentum for the establishment of an independent auditor to better inform schools of the companies’ filtering methods.

Religious connections

The report’s author, Nancy Willard, said the incident that sparked her investigation was the removal of a press release on the N2H2 web site announcing the sale of the company’s filtering services to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its LDS World Millennial Star Network—shortly after she shared this information with an educators’ online discussion forum that an N2H2 executive participates in.

“I thought, ‘What is it they were trying to hide?’ That just triggered my curiosity,” Willard said.

Her investigation found that, in addition to LDS World, N2H2 provides filtering services for Christianity.com, Christian.net (http://christian-isp.com), and TheShield.org, the filtered internet service of Tennessee Temple Schools. According to her report, N2H2 also ran a Church Affiliate program in which it provided free filtering services and a referral fee to churches, in exchange for a marketing link on the church’s web site.

These conservative religious organizations “are representing to their users that [N2H2’s] service filters in accord with conservative religious values,” the report says.

N2H2’s Burt denies any suggestion that his company was trying to downplay its relationship with LDS World by removing the press release from its web site. Burt said the release was removed because it was more than two years old, which is standard practice for the company.

“You may note the release ‘N2H2 Chosen to Provide Global Filtering Service to Christianity.com’ is still on our site,” he said (http://www.n2h2.com/news/releases/10-18-00.php).

Other links between conservative Christian organizations and filtering companies cited by the report include:

  • Symantec provides its I-Gear solution to 711.Net/Global Internet Ministries (http://www.711.net), What Would Jesus View (http://wwjv.com), and FamilyClick.com, an ISP that is run by Tim Robertson, son of the Christian Coalition’s Pat Robertson. Well-known Christian activist Donna Rice Hughes is a spokeswoman for the company.

  • 8e6 Technologies (formerly Log-On Data Corp.) “appears to have been started in collaboration with the American Family Association, a conservative religious organization,” the report says. It quotes this line from the group’s web site to support its claim: “AFA teams up with Log-On Data to market X-Stop, a powerful internet pornography filter” (http://www.afa.net/hs~about.asp).

  • NETcomply, which sells St. Bernard, Symantec, and 8e6 Technologies products to schools (as well as its own filtered ISP service, called QuickComply), is run by 711.Net Inc., which also operates the Global Internet Ministries.

Willard says in her report that the first time she visited the Global Internet Ministries web site, the lead article on the site was “Have we shamed the face of Jesus? Muslims in our pulpits,” and the article drew the following conclusion: “… when we present Islam as another truth, we spit on the face of Christ and those who serve His kingdom in Islamic countries.”

  • Bsafe Online, which targets the school market with a filtered ISP service called Bsafe School, is owned by American Family Online, a subsidiary of the American Family Association (AFA). AFA “had been fighting to protect time-tested, Christian-based values for over 20 years,” according to its web site (http://afo.net/welcomeletter.htm).

    (While the home page for Bsafe Online was functioning, no other links to the site were working at press time, so eSchool News was not able to confirm the connection between Bsafe Online and AFA.)

  • S4F Technologies Inc., which targets the school market with a product called EduGuard, “appears to have started as a religious ISP, known as Family Connect,” according to the report. (eSchool News was not able to confirm this by press time.) S4F also provides filtering services to other religious ISPs, including Christian-Internet.com, the report says.

  • Internet Management Solutions Inc. has a close relationship with Bob Jones University, which sells the company’s SurfClear filtering product through its web site. A statement on the Bob Jones University web site reads, “Recently, Bob Jones University and SurfClear have released a unique web filtering system that is more conservative than the average internet filter. This version of SurfClear is available at bjup.surfclear.net.”

Listing to the right?

Willard is concerned these companies are inappropriately reflecting conservative values in the way they categorize web sites for blocking by schools. For example, several solutions include a category called “Occult,” which might include constitutionally protected information about non-traditional religions based on Native American or Eastern philosophies.

“If students are allowed to access Christian sites, which most people would argue they should be allowed to access, it is unacceptable for schools to block access to other religious sites,” she writes in the report.

As another example of conservative bias, Willard cites Symantec’s categorization of web sites under its “Sex Education” heading. The company actually differentiates between three types of sex-education sites: “Basic” sites provide elementary information about puberty and reproduction; “Advanced” sites provide medical discussions of sexually transmitted diseases and information about birth control, family planning, safe sex, and sexual abuse; and “Sexuality” sites deal with topics in human sexuality, such as “sexual technique, sexual orientation, cross-dressing, transvestites, transgenders, multiple-partner relationships, and other related issues.”

“To lump all ‘sexual orientation’ sites into one category … with other material that would clearly be inappropriate for students is unacceptable,” the report states. “If heterosexual students are allowed to access sites containing safe-sex information, then homosexual students should also be allowed to access safe-sex sites directed at their population. If African-American students or other racial minority students are allowed to access sites that address racial discrimination, gay and lesbian students should be allowed to access sites that support their efforts in addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)—a national network of parents, students, and other activists working to end discrimination based on sexual orientation—posts eMail messages it receives from students and teachers on its web site, including the following message from a student using a school computer with filtered internet access: “I tried to access GLSEN’s site and the computer gives me something like ‘Cannot access www.glsen.org, category: Sex/Sexuality.'”

Willard said it’s fairly likely this student was using internet access filtered by Symantec’s I-Gear.

“Since this information was revealed, I have now obtained independent evidence that Symantec is blocking access to not only GLSEN, but also GLAAD—the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—in the ‘Sex/Sexuality’ category along with sexual technique, multiple-partner relationships, and other similar sites,” Willard said. “The GLSEN/GLAAD blocking provides strong indication that Symantec does not have an adequate understanding of appropriate constitutional standards.”

She continued, “The fact that [Symantec has] placed this material in a category that … pretty clearly meets the definition of ‘harmful to minors’ has placed school administrators in a Catch-22 situation. If they block in accord with CIPA, they are denying students access to sites they really should be able to access. If they do not block this category, they are in violation of CIPA.”

A Symantec spokesperson avoided an eSchool News reporter’s questions about the company’s categorization of web sites, instead issuing the following generic statement:

“When initially installed, the software does not block access to any predefined content categories, until default policies are actively put in place by the administrator of the software. Furthermore, the option to unconditionally allow access to any type of content or URL [Uniform Resource Locator, or web site address] is always available, so that administrators can always override, or make exceptions for, any content classifications contained in the URL database that is supplied with the system.”

But Willard says that’s not enough.

“The processes that are used in schools to override the blocking device are generally so cumbersome that schools and teachers don’t even try,” she said.

Furthermore, students shouldn’t have to request an override to get information on a controversial topic they should legally have access to, but might be embarrassed to request, Willard said. If a student discovers that a sexual orientation web site is blocked, for example, it “places exceptional burden on the child” to have to ask his or her teacher to unblock the site.

Ted Davis, director of knowledge asset management for the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, said his district uses Symantec’s I-Gear filter, and religious bias “has never been an issue.”

Ironically, Davis said a few users complained that the service blocked the web site of the National Rifle Association—an organization backed by conservative religious groups—within its “Weapons” category, and district officials subsequently unblocked the site.

Proprietary information

Because these companies closely guard their “block” lists and methodologies as proprietary, trade-secret information, Willard acknowledges that she has no solid evidence of any bias in their filtering. But she’d like to see that change.

Her report recommends that an independent auditing mechanism be established “to ensure that companies providing blocking products are not blocking access to material in violation of students’ constitutional rights.”

Given that schools are now required by law to implement technology protection measures to keep students from accessing pornography online, some school technology experts agree with this recommendation.

“Filtering software should be subject to the same public and expert scrutiny that textbooks and other curricular materials are, to prevent bias,” said Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies for the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

The Children’s Online Protection Act Commission, a group formed by Congress to study children’s internet safety issues, recommended the formation of such a service in its October 2000 report to Congress, but no action was taken.

“There would have to be funding from some entity to do this,” Willard said. “I don’t know how it should be done or who should be responsible. It is simply necessary.”

George Shih, president and chief executive of 8e6 Technologies, said an independent auditing group is “a reasonable request. Something like that would help a company like us provide a better product to our customers—we’d be willing to provide our list to them.”

N2H2’s Burt said an independent auditor would “certainly [be] free to look at how we categorize sites and look at specific types of sites. I don’t think we’d supply somebody with our entire list, but we’d supply them with examples.”

When asked why his company would not provide the whole list, Burt said, “It is a proprietary list. The list is the product, and if that were made public, a competitor could [acquire it].”

Willard says she’s not completely opposed to filtering; it’s entirely appropriate for younger students, but “seeking to retain teenagers in ‘fenced play-yards’ is futile,” she writes in her report.

The report concludes, “Rather than placing primary reliance on filtering tools, schools should develop comprehensive strategies to help students learn to use the internet in a safe and responsible manner, in accord with school standards and their personal family values. Schools can reinforce the importance of using the internet in accord with personal family values by providing parents with access to their child’s internet usage records.”

Not all educators would agree this approach is adequate.

In a fitting illustration of how there is no single opinion on the topic of filtering—or even which web sites are appropriate for students to access in schools—Carolyn Worsham, director of instructional technology for the Nederland Independent School District in Texas, said she uses N2H2’s filtering service and has never noticed any bias. “I can’t argue with the philosophy that the tendency to overblock is better than the tendency to underblock,” Worsham said. “There are other ways [students] can view [controversial] material. I mean, students can go to a public library or home to access sites that may not be appropriate in schools.” __________________________________

Associate Editor Elizabeth B. Guerard and Assistant Editor Cara Branigan contributed to this report.

Links:

“Filtering Software: The Religious Connection”
http://netizen.uoregon.edu/documents/religious1.html

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

Symantec Corp.
http://www.symantec.com

8e6 Technologies Inc.
http://www.8e6technologies.com

NETcomply
http://www.netcomply.com

Bsafe Online
http://www.bsafeonline.com

S4F Technologies Inc.
http://www.s4f.com

Internet Management Solutions Inc.
http://www.ims-inc.com

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network
http://www.glsen.org

Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
http://www.glaad.org

National Rifle Association
http://www.nra.org