Evidence of Over-blocking and Biased Blocking
When schools install
the most common types of technology protection measures, those that Block by
URL lists or Block by Content Analysis, the result is that school officials
have turned over control for the determination of whether or not materials are
appropriate for students to a third party company. There is no mechanism in
place to hold these companies accountable for the technical adequacy of their
systems, the effectiveness and appropriateness if their blocking decisions,
the competency of the staff making the blocking decisions, or the potential
biases that may emerge in the blocking decision-making process. These technology
protection measures over-block -- that is, they prevent access by students or
teachers to material that is not harmful and should be perfectly appropriate
may erroneously believe that they have retained control because they have exercised
their option to configure the blocking product by selecting which categories
are to be blocked. However, this selection is made based solely on a 2 to 3
sentence description of the category and several highly inflammatory examples.
The actual list of blocked sites is considered a trade secret by most companies,
and is highly protected. Essentially, the district has entrusted all preliminary,
and the vast majority of all decisions about what students and teachers may
and may not access to a private vendor.
While there has
been no formal mechanism to fully assess the quality of technology protection
measures, there is ample evidence of concern about the degree to which this
Online Protection Act Commission (COPA), evaluated the adequacy of various technology
protection measures. The findings presented in their report related to products
that Block by URL lists were:
- This technology
raises First Amendment concerns because of its potential to be over-inclusive
in blocking content. Concerns are increased because the extent of blocking
is often unclear and not disclosed, and may not be based on parental choices.
There is less of an impact on First Amendment concerns if filtering criteria
are known by the consumer or other end-user and if filters are customizable
- There are significant
concerns about First Amendment values when server-side filters are used in
libraries and schools .
With respect to
products that Block by Content Analysis," the Commission's findings were:
- This technology
raises First Amendment concerns because of its potential to be over-inclusive
in blocking content. Concerns are increased because the extent of blocking
is often unclear and not disclosed. Client-side systems may be customized
based on family choice.
- ... Adverse
impacts to First Amendment values and costs to publishers stem from risk of
over-inclusive blocking .
exchange occurred during the COPA Commission proceedings. The CEO of a company
offering a new Block by Content Analysis product testified at the COPA Commission
hearing that the new product has "high rates of accuracy in filtering pornographic
content." Later in the proceedings, analysis was presented to the Commission
by the Director of Peacefire that demonstrated that many of the personal pages
of the Commissioners and the organizations they were affiliated with were blocked
. Apparently, this product will prevent access to the pages of anyone who mistakenly
notes on their site that they graduated "cum lauda."
The Consumers Union
also did an analysis of these products. In their report they noted:
In some cases,
filters block harmless sites merely because their software does not consider
the context in which a word or phrase is used. Far more troubling is when
a filter appears to block legitimate sites based on moral or political value
Our results cast doubt on the appropriateness of some companies' judgement
the National Coalition Against Censorship published Internet Filters: A Public
Policy Report . This report provided a compilation of all of the studies and
tests it could locate related to the operation of 19 products or software programs
used to block access. This report concluded:
studies and tests vary widely. They range from anecdotal accounts to extensive
tests applying social-science methodologies. ... Most tests simply describe
the actual sites that a particular product blocked when Web searches were
conducted. Nearly every one, however, revealed massive over-blocking by filtering
software (this term refers to both blocking and filtering technologies)
The problem stems
from the very nature of filtering. which must, because of the sheer number
of Internet sites, rely to a large extent on mindless mechanical blocking
through identification of keywords and phrase. Where human judgment does come
into play, filtering decisions are based on different company's broad and
varying concepts of offensiveness, "inappropriateness," or disagreements
with the political viewpoint of the manufacturer .
A more recent report
that contains portions of the expert testimony of Ben Edelman that will be introduced
in the lawsuit filed by the ALA and ACLU to overturn CIPA in the context of
libraries also addresses the massive amount of over-blocking that occurs with
these types of technologies. This report contains an excellent description of
the manner in which these products over-block. Dr. Edelman's expert testimony
I have concluded
that installations in libraries of Internet blocking programs configured to
block particular categories of Internet content will inevitably block Internet
content that does not meet the program's self-defined category definitions
be the result of technical inadequacies that are difficult to address. For example,
if a company that hosts web sites has adult web sites on its system and uses
dynamic or virtual IP addressing, some blocking companies may simply block access
to the entire web host. An excellent professional development web site for teachers
was found to be blocked for this reason . Products that Block by Content Analysis
have an even greater potential for technical failure, as the above mentioned
incident that occurred during the COPA Commission hearings illustrated.
also result from staffing inadequacies. Many companies maintain that every page
is viewed by a human reviewer before it goes onto the block list. There are
far too many incidents where material has been blocked when this clearly has
not been the case (e.g. a site established by a person whose name is Wager blocked
in the gambling category.)
Some blocking occurs
because companies tend to ere on the side of blocking. The CEO of N2H2 told
the author of this report that his reviewers are told, "when in doubt,
block." Also since many of these products are targeting at least two markets,
schools and business, blocking decisions may be made from the perspective of
the needs of business. For example, one company blocks the full range of sites
regarding sex -- from safe sex to porn -- in one category and offers an explanation
that none of this information is appropriate in the workplace .
Issues of biased
blocking, blocking based on viewpoint discrimination, are far more problematic.
Two organizations that have engaged in intensive analysis of these products,
Peacefire and Censorware , have revealed many instances of blocking that is
clearly the result of viewpoint discrimination. There are many reports on the
sites of these two organizations. All of these reports have been summarized
in the NCAC report.
Perhaps most disturbing
are the alliances that some companies have established with conservative organizations
that clearly have the potential of resulting in blocking based on viewpoint
discrimination. Here are some examples:
In a report entitled Jacking in from the "Keys to the Kingdom" Port
written by reporters Brock Meeks and Declan McCullagh published in July 1996
contains the following information:
Unlike the others,
CyberSitter doesn't hide the fact that they're trying to enforce a moral code.
"We don't simply block pornography. That's not the intention of the product,"
said Milburn. "The majority of our customers are strong family-oriented
people with traditional family values. Our product is sold by Focus on the
Family because we allow the parents to select fairly strict guidelines."
(Focus on the Family, of course, is a conservative group that strongly supports
(formerly X-Stop) X-Stop's original logo was "Blessed are those who
remove the temptation." On the American Family Association, a conservative
religious organization, we find the following information on their About AFA
- AFA teams up
with Log-On Data, to market X-Stop, a powerful Internet pornography filter
is used in many of the nation's schools. It is clear from a visit to the N2H2
web site that the company targets both the corporate market and the education
market. What is not at all demonstrated on the N2H2 web site is the extent to
which the company has also penetrated the faith-based ISP market. The faith-based
ISPs, in turn, state or strongly imply that the N2H2 product is blocking in
accord with the values of the faith-based organization: Here are some examples:
Star Network This ISP is affiliated with the LDS Church and states on its
Your home. Your
Values. Your Internet.
Helping you maintain LDS values in your home.
. This ISP is affiliated with Church USA Internet Ministries and states on its
We are a Christian
based company striving to promote good family values. Revenue generated from
our services are used to help fund Church USA Internet Ministries. Our nationwide
access allows Christians to enter the internet without worrying about questionable
content. All of our filtering is done at the server by N2H2 without cumbersome
The CEO of Crosswalk.com was interviewed in a story that appeared in the Christian
Computing Magazine . Here is what he said:
Q: What do you
want our readers to know about Crosswalk.com?
First, we're the only broad-based Christian portal to the Internet. If you
look at the research on what people do on the Web, we offer nine out of the
top 10 activities - plus a whole lot more - all from a Christian point of
view. We call it "information for Christians, not just Christian information,"
and it drives us towards providing all of life - things like personal finance,
career development and management, music, entertainment, education - in a
safe, family-friendly environment.
Also, as a Christian
portal to the Web, we recognize that the number one issue for the Christian
community is using the Web filtering solution available - you don't need special
software or any specific ISP - and a full-Web filtered search engine that
uses Inktomi's leading database of Web sites along with N2H2's market-leading
filtering system. Defense is now off the table. You can explore the world
and get home safely from crosswalk.com.
for Failure to Address the Over-blocking
As more and more
evidence emerges regarding the degree to which the Block by URL Lists and Block
by Content Analysis products prevent access to appropriate, educationally relevant
material, there will be increasing pressure to address these issues in schools.
If a district selects a product where there is reason to believe, either based
on description of the blocking categories, published reports, corporate alliances
with groups that may be influencing blocking decisions, or actual experience,
that the Technology Protection Measure is blocking access to educationally relevant
material based on the viewpoint discrimination and the district has failed to
adequately address this issue in a way that allows for prompt access to inappropriately
blocked material , there is the clear potential of liability on the basis of
restricting student's First Amendment rights of access to information.
Creating Problems in the Educational Environment
NEVER be placed in a position of subservience to a technology tool!
Educators are information
professionals. Educators have a far greater educational background, expertise,
and experience in analyzing information and making a determination of the appropriateness
of that information for students than the employees making blocking decisions
or artificially intelligent technical filtering systems. It should never be
presumed that a technology protection measure will do a better job of evaluating
the appropriateness of material for students than teachers or media specialists.
and the Reality
Too often school
boards and administrators dismiss concerns of over-blocking with the rationalization
that students and teachers have access to much more information than they ever
have had before, so they should not be upset because their access to some material
has been limited. In addition to severely interfering with students' First Amendment
rights to access information (more fully discussed in Students' Rights of Access
to Information), the over-blocking has serious detrimental impacts in the educational
of failure to address the legitimate concerns of over-blocking are many. Most
importantly, when teachers or students know or believe there is information
pertinent to the subject they are teaching or researching and they are prevented
from accessing that information this results in significant frustration. The
anger resulting from this frustration is generally directed at school administrators,
whose understanding of technology, policies, and motives are called into question.
When teachers hold this perspective, the school climate suffers. When students
hold this perspective, they will likely disrespect the school administration
and the policies/practices they have implemented.
Here is what one
student had to say about the problem with over-blocking:
The block list
is what we all hate. It is the bane of every student and teacher at Foothill
High School. We curse it, we shout at it, we bang on our keyboards, but there
is really nothing we can do about it. Whenever we click a site that is on
the block list, a funny face appears on our screen along with a message informing
us that the site we requested has been blocked because it contains objectionable
material. There are those words again, "objectionable material."
They're used to make parents feel safe, to make lawmakers feel secure, to
make society feel good. But they have no real meaning .
The following are
comments related to concerns about over- blocking that came from participants
on WWWEDU, an education discussion list.
Teacher from California
At my school,
the only person who can unblock a site is the District Tech Director, whose
office is across town. She is rarely at her desk. Sometimes it takes a day,
sometimes a week, for her to take action on our request. By the time she does
anything, the student who wanted to access the site is long gone. (i.e. the
system doesn't work.)
seem to involve art sites and medical/drug sites (medical uses of marijuana
is a particular problem but there are others.) For example, we couldn't get
to any Hitler sites the day that a student was doing a World War Two report.
Also, there is a link from the Yahoo finance page that is blocked, notwithstanding
the fact that one of our economics teachers wants the kids to use it.
in our district, many of the students have internet access at home, so they
just go home and do the work, but they are irritated. They think the school
is a joke, plus they have wasted the time they were given to work on the web
at school. If they don't have web access at home, or some place outside of
school...they're victims of the system.
for the Landmark Project
Over the past
couple of years educational leadership has made enormous investments in supplying
schools and classrooms with the Internet. However, if teachers spend hours
at home, preparing for Internet-enhanced lessons, only to learn that one or
more of the web sites they want to use is blocked, then they will view the
tool/technology as undependable. No matter what the cost, teachers will only
use tools that they can depend on.
A logical solution
(IMHO) is to install blocking software and then enable teachers to circumvent
the blocks when they interfere with instruction. If we can't trust teachers
with the Internet, how can we trust them with our children?
Teacher from New
Many of my students
have developed "learned helplessness." It drives me nuts when (name
of product) blocks these students from sites they find through effective use
of their newly acquired search engine skills. Just when there's an opportunity
for success and reinforcement for the student, (name of product) will not
show the link. This happens about 20 percent of the time. I have taught them
how to copy and paste the forbidden url in an e-mail message to themselves
so they can view it elsewhere later.
Educational Technology Cooperative, Georgia
school students taking courses online are unable to access chat or e-mail
(which is required by the teacher/course) or certain resources needed for
class research. Kids working from home can still get to the resources but
those who had no computers or Internet access at home have no choice but to
do coursework at school (a digital divide issue).
is low-literacy high school students in Mississippi unable to reach sites
that might stimulate their reading interest - such as sports and entertainment.
Those sites were blocked because they were distracting kids away from "real"
education, but provided legitimate resources to kids whose reading skills
needed help and were too old for most of the reading materials available.
Teacher from Oregon
When a student
or teacher receives a message from a sad-eyed dog saying "Bess doesn't
want you to go there" or some other message and that student or teacher
had no intention whatsoever of trying to get to an inappropriate site, the
student or teacher rightfully feels as though he or she has been wrongfully
charged with an attempt to violate a rule. This process is a demonstration
of disrespect to the student or teacher.
in Education and Technology from Washington
decision-makers want students and schools held accountable for academic achievement,
students are not presumed to be responsible users of technology. In other
words, a double standard exists. If you want to create an atmosphere whereby
students believe they will be held accountable for their learning, then they
must believe they are accountable for using learning tools in a responsible
manner. Basically, if you can't trust them to responsibly use the tools you
provide, what is the message they take with them when they are held responsible
for their learning?
Director of Technology
from School District in Colorado
makes people believe the world (the Internet) has more hate and pornography
in it than it really does?
Strategies to Address Over-blocking Concerns
Make a commitment
to protect students' rights to access information and ideas and teachers rights
related to academic freedom.
Select a technology
protection measure that does not over-block. The products that will not over-block
- Products that
Filter and Warn.
- Products that
use Filtered Monitoring.
- The Internet
Content Rating Association system (ICRA System) to block against sites that
have rated themselves as adult sites.
The use of these
products as the exclusive approach is not recommended for elementary students.
These students must be kept in safe places. This can be accomplished through
the establishment of district/classroom web sites or the use of the ICRA System
to provide access to sites that have been rated as educational sites.
The most important
advantage of the products that Filter and Warn and Filtered Monitoring is that
their use will require secondary students to learn to make responsible choices
in an environment that will reinforce accountability. This strategy presents
a better educational approach, in addition to addressing concerns of over-blocking.
If the district
must install a Technology Protection Measure that Blocks by URL Lists or Blocks
by Content Analysis, undertake the following actions:
o Review independent
reports on the products.
o Ask the company
how it address issues of major web-hosting sites. Ask whether they have the
technical capacity to block individual pages on those sites or is the decision
limited to blocking or not blocking the entire domain? (Recognize that many
teachers are placing valuable educational resources on these web hosting sites.)
Ask the company how it addresses issues of potentially controversial information
that may be present on sites. Ask whether their basic inclination is to block
or not block if there is a question about the appropriateness of the material.
Ask specifically what kinds of site are included and are not included in the
categories that must be blocked to meet CIPA requirements. Is the company blocking
access to comprehensive sexual education materials in the same category that
blocks access to obscene materials and child pornography? If so, this product
should be considered to be unacceptable in schools. Select a company that can
configure its system to most closely restrict access to only that material that
is prohibited by CIPA. Ask the company to provide a list of its current major
clients outside of education. Is the company providing services to organizations
or entities that may reflect a certain bias? Also, ask for a list of all trade
shows, conferences, and other similar events that the company has attended in
the last year. Evaluate this list to determine whether any of the potential
targeted clients may reflect a certain bias?
- Configure the
Technology Protection Measure to block only those categories that are most
closely related to the specific CIPA requirements. If a district has implemented
the comprehensive approach outlined in this document, with effective monitoring,
it should not have to utilize a technology tool to block access to this additional
- Establish a
process to rapidly and effectively provide access to inappropriately blocked
sites by delegating the authority to unblock the Technology Protection Measure
media specialists and teachers and administrators a mechanism must be put
into place that will ensure that students and teachers can rapidly gain access
to sites that have been inappropriately blocked. All district educators who
have a sufficient level of technical proficiency to ensure the integrity of
the district's computer network should be granted authority to override the
measure to temporarily unblock a site to which access is blocked, to evaluate
whether or not the site has been appropriately or inappropriately blocked
outside of the presence of a student, and, after engaging in such review,
to make the decision to allow a student or another teacher to access such
should not be limited to only a few individuals. Such a mechanism results
is too much delay from the point in time that the material is needed to
the point in time that it is provided. Failure the grant authority to media
specialists and teachers to override the system essentially demonstrates
significant disrespect to these professionals.
this approach, the following should be addressed:
a technology protection measure that provides the mechanism to grant authority
to a variety of individuals to override the measure to allow access to
the blocked site. The technology protection measure should have a reporting
system that will automatically send reports to the system administrator
when such overriding has occurred. This will help to ensure accountability
and system security.
* Grant authority
to media specialists, teachers, and administrators to temporarily unblock
the technology protection measure to allow access for students or other
teachers. Media specialists and teachers who make use of the Internet
for instructional purposes should be provided with the authority to override
the measure if they have sufficient technical proficiency to protect the
integrity of the network.
a mechanism that allows secondary students to anonymously request that
a site be unblocked. This will protect the privacy of students who may
desire access to material that is sensitive in nature.
that those with the authority to override the technology protection measure
view the site that has been blocked outside of the presence of any student
to make a determination of the appropriateness of the material on the
an additional mechanism that can be followed to allow for the permanent
unblocking of sites that have been inappropriately blocked. This mechanism
would generally involve transmission of a recommendation to wither an
individual or a committee that would make such a decision. The district's
top media specialist should be responsible for managing this process.
the district's system administrator to periodically review the reports
of overriding to make sure that system integrity has not been jeopardized.
a mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of this process. Solicit input
from teachers and students in the context of this evaluation.