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Censorware Project exposes "SmartFilter" blocking software

The Censorware Project has published a 61-page report this morning at: http://censorware.org/reports/utah/ exposing the claims of "SmartFilter" blocking software to be misleading, after a several-month legal battle to obtain information about the list of sites blocked by the program.

The report describes censorship on the Utah Education Network (which connects Utah public schools and libraries to the Internet) since the UEN purchased and installed SmartFilter. Michael Sims, who is also the webmaster of Censorware.org, was the main author of the paper. (I am one of the four other volunteer members of the Censorware Project.)

Among sites that students have been banned from accessing were the Bible, the United States Constitution, the Koran, and the Declaration of Independence. Even the Book of Mormon was banned -- on a school network providing service exclusively to Utah!

The report is the culmination of a project that began several months ago, when Michael Sims filed a request with the Utah Education Network (under Utah's version of the Freedom of Information Act) for log files that would show what sites students have been blocked from accessing since SmartFilter was installed. Although the UEN shortly thereafter destroyed the records that Sims had requested, this action caught the attention of the State Records Committee (destroying documents requested under a freedom of information act is illegal), and when Sims made a second request for a new set of log files, the UEN complied. These log files were analyzed to find out what sites were blocked by SmartFilter and how they were categorized.

SmartFilter manufacturer Secure Computing Ltd. originally claimed that "sites are not added to our control list without first being viewed and approved by our staff". After the report was published this morning, a company spokeswoman at least partially retracted that claim in a statement: "Generally, we try to review every site." Examples of banned sites were found in the report, however, that left little doubt that SmartFilter had misled customers. One student's home page was blocked as a "Gambling" site because his last name was Wager. The official home page of the Offspring home page was blocked as a "Criminal skills" site because of lyrics that included phrases like "crack the code". The full report includes literally hundreds of more examples. None of these errors would have been made by a human reviewing each blocked site individually; the mistakes indicate that a computer conducted the "review" of these pages and classified them according to keywords that it found.

The report concluded with the question: ""When the Declaration of Independence is banned from the citizens of Saudi Arabia, so that they won't get ideas, we call it culturally backward. When it's banned from our own public libraries by our own government, then what do we call it?"

The full text of the project, and links to media coverage of the events leading up to the project's publication, are at: http://censorware.org/reports/utah/ and the Censorware Project's press release is at: http://censorware.org/press/press_03-23-99.html 


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