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Filtering Software: The Religious Connection

The Religious Connection Report HTML version
The Religious Connection Report PDF version. (You will need Adobe Acrobat.)

Individual Company Reports
N2H2 (Bess)
Symantec (I-Gear)
8e6 Technologies (R2000 or X-Stop)
Solid Oak (CyberSitter)
NetComply/711.Net
BSafeSchool/American Family Online
EduGuard/S4F
SurfClear

Nancy Willard, M.S. J.D.
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
Web site: http://csriu.org/publications.html
Bio: http://csriu.org/about/bio.html
E-mail: nwillard@responsiblenetizen.org
February 24, 2002


"Your home. Your values. Your Internet.
Help maintain LDS values when you use the Internet."
- MStar.Net logo. (http://www.mstar.net/isp/default.htm)

"(A)s a Christian portal to the Web, we recognize that the number one issue for the Christian community is using the Web safely and responsibly. . That's why we've recently launched CrossingGuard, the only free server-level, continuously-updated Web filtering solution available ..."
- Statement by CEO of Crosswalk (http://www.gospelcom.net/ccmag/articles/covr399plus.html)

The American Family Filter is built on the Christian principal of holiness and living a pure life. ... American Family Filter stands apart from other blocking software, employing a uniquely Christian approach to our content filtering. We adhere to a higher standard, because American Family Filter is a ministry first and foremost, and therefore we are accountable to a Higher Authority for the product we produce."
- Statement on American Family Filter web site (http://www.afafilter.com/about.asp)

"Upholding Biblical standards
We use a sophisticated server-based filtering process to eliminate objectionable material. ... We filter out the standard offensive material - pornography, profanity, and violence. In addition, we uphold our own set of standards...Biblical standards."
- Statement on 711.Net web site (http://www.711online.net/filterphilosophy.htm)

What do all of these conservative religious Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have in common? They are all using filtering products that are also being used in U.S. public schools.

Filtering Software: The Religious Connection is a new report issued by the Responsible Netizen Project of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education of the University of Oregon College of Education. The report is online at http://netizen.uoregon.edu/

This report reviews the relationships of eight filtering software companies with conservative religious organizations. Some of the filtering companies are providing filtering services to conservative religious ISPs that are representing to their users that the service filters in accord with conservative religious values. Some of the filtering companies appear to have partnership relationships with conservative religious organizations. Some filtering companies have been functioning as conservative religious ISPs and have recently established new divisions that are marketing services to schools. Most of the companies have filtering categories in which they are blocking web sites presenting information known to be of concern to people with conservative religious values -- such as non-traditional religions and sexual orientation -- in the same category as material that no responsible adult would consider appropriate for young people.

The existence of these relationships and blocking categories 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. Because filtering software companies protect the actual list of blocked sites, searching and blocking key words, blocking criteria, and blocking processes as confidential, proprietary trade secret information it is not possible to prove or disprove the hypothesis that the companies may be blocking access to material based on religious or other inappropriate bias. This situation raises concerns related to student's constitutionally-protected rights of access to information and excessive entanglement of religion with schools.

The companies include: N2H2 (Bess), Symantec (I-Gear), 8e6 Technologies (R2000 or X-Stop), Solid Oak (CyberSitter), NetComply/711.Net, BSafeSchool/American Family Online, EduGuard/S4F, and SurfClear. The report investigates the relationship between these filtering software companies and conservative religious organizations, outlines potential areas of concern raised by such connections from the perspective of the use of these products in public schools, and presents recommendations to address the concerns.

The Children's Internet Protection Act requires that all schools seeking federal funds through the E-Rate program and Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, install a "technology protection measure" to protect against access to obscene material, child pornography, and material that is harmful to minors. Many public school district in the U.S. have or will be installing filtering software that functions by blocking access to sites that the filtering company has determined are inappropriate.

Findings

  • Three filtering companies, that have a major presence in public schools, are also selling their product to conservative religious Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Most of these conservative religious ISPs are directly stating or strongly implying to their users that the filtering system is filtering in accord with conservative religious values.

  • The other five filtering companies have functioned as conservative religious ISPs, are selling to conservative religious ISPs, and/or have expressed a conservative religious philosophy. Four of these companies appear to have recently begun to target the school market in the context of the new CIPA requirements.

  • The conservative religious ISPs encourage their users to submit the URLs of sites that they think should be blocked. Filtering companies generally perceive the risks of failing to block access to inappropriate material as more significant than the risks of blocking access to appropriate material. It is reasonable to assume that filtering companies would generally block such reported sites, thus raising the question of the cumulative impact of such reporting and blocking.

  • Seven companies have blocking categories where the description for the category provides strong evidence that the company is blocking based on religious or other inappropriate bias. The categories block access to protected material along with material that would be unacceptable in school. In some cases, the category that contains protected material contains other material that would likely meet the definition of "harmful to minors" and thus be required to be blocked under CIPA. The existence of blocking categories where inappropriate bias is blatantly evident raises concerns that these companies fail to understand the constitutional standards regarding student's rights of access to information and that material is also being blocked in other categories on the basis of inappropriate bias.

  • Although information about the religious connections can be found through diligent search, such information is not clearly evident on the corporate web site or in materials that would provide the source of information for local school officials.

  • When local school officials select and implement a filtering product, they are provided only a list of potential categories to be blocked, with a short description of the types of material blocked in the categories. Filtering companies protect the actual list of blocked sites, searching and blocking key words, blocking criteria, and blocking processes as confidential, proprietary trade secret information. Therefore, local school officials have essentially delegated control to filtering companies to make decisions about the appropriateness of material for students when there is no vehicle to determine how such control is being exercised.

  • Numerous reports on filtering products have revealed that such products consistently over-block and thereby the prevent access to perfectly appropriate material. The reasons for such over-blocking --which could include technical inadequacies, process inadequacies, and bias -- are not easily discernable, due to the lack of access to necessary information.

  • Because filtering companies protect the actual list of blocked sites, searching and blocking key words, blocking criteria, and blocking processes as confidential, proprietary trade secret information it is not possible for an independent researcher to identify specific sites that "prove" that companies are engaged in blocking based on inappropriate religious or other bias.

  • There is no auditing mechanism in place that provides for the independent, objective analysis of the manner in which these, and other, filtering companies are making blocking decisions that would ensure that such decisions are being made in accord with constitutional standards that protect students' rights of access to information and avoid public school entanglement with religion.

Recommendations

  • If school decision-makers are now required, by law, to implement technology protection measures, an independent, objective auditing mechanism must be established to ensure that companies providing blocking products are not blocking access to material in violation of students' constitutional rights.

  • Mechanism(s) should be established to facilitate student access to comprehensive teen health and sexual education web sites that have been reviewed by health care and educational professionals and found to be appropriate and accurate.

  • 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 cannot enforce a wide range of individual family values when students are using the Internet in schools. 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.