PFIR Statement on Content Control and Ratings
PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility <email@example.com>
Sat, 18 Mar 2000 14:02:14 -0800 (PST)
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PFIR Statement on Content Control and Ratings
PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
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Greetings. One of the most contentious issues on the Internet and its World
Wide Web is the rising furor surrounding the filtering and rating of site
content. It has all the elements of a classic "B" movie: politics,
religion, sex, and even some dandy sci-fi aspects such as runaway technology.
But filtering and content matters far transcend the importance of an
afternoon's idle entertainment, and strike to the very heart of some crucial
concerns of both individuals and society.
The Internet has created the potential for information distribution and
access without respect to organizational size, jurisdictions, or geographic
boundaries. These abilities are unparalleled in the human experience. Even
such fundamental developments as the printing press seem to pale in scope
when compared with the vast quantity and reach of information the Internet
The Internet and Web are just tools of course, and as such do not possess
intrinsic ethical or moral sensibilities. The available materials cover the
entire range from the vile to the sublime. But assigning any particular
page of information, photos, or other Internet data to a specific point
along that continuum is a highly individualistic experience, with reasonable
and honorable people disagreeing over virtually every category.
It is into this unprecedented environment that the world's populace has found
itself suddenly thrust, and the urge to attempt the implementation of
"simple" solutions to a very complex set of circumstances is proving to be
overwhelming. As usual, however, we're finding that the simple approaches
are often wrought with problems of their own.
The core issue revolves around the desire and abilities of individuals,
organizations, and governments to rate, filter, or otherwise control the
Internet content that may be viewed by any given individual. In some cases,
their specific concerns may be fundamentally laudable, in other cases, highly
suspect. Countries with a history of censoring political speech, for
example, have been quick to attempt the implementation of proxy servers and
other controls to try stem the flow of such communications.
But this trend is not limited only to governments with a history of draconian
information controls, but also has appeared in such enlightened democracies
as Australia, where government-mandated rating and blocking requirements,
aimed primarily at "offensive" entertainment material, have been
implemented. Similar government edicts are on the rise within the European
Union and other areas of the world.
In the United States, these movements are also present. The use of content
filtering software programs is on the rise by private and public
organizations, municipalities in their offices, schools, and libraries, and
so on. Sometimes these filters are directed at children's use of computers,
but often adults as well are required to abide by the programs'
restrictions. The U.S. Congress has twice attempted to mandate the use of
such filters by public institutions, linking such usage to federal funding.
These mandates have so far been rejected by the federal court system, though
the legal wrangling continues.
Even if such filtering programs accurately performed their stated purposes,
the information control, freedom of speech, and related issues would be
formidable at best. But making matters even worse is the flawed nature of
these filtering methodologies, and in many cases the secretiveness with
which they implement their content filtering decisions.
Filtering can be applied to nearly any type of Internet content, from e-mail
to Web pages. It can be implemented via automated systems, typically using
keyword searching to try find "offending" materials. This tends to be the
most laughable filtering technique, since its false positive rate is
immensely high. Web pages mentioning the term "Superbowl XXX" have been
blocked as pornography by such systems. Even the recent "PFIR Statement on
Spam" (http://www.pfir.org/statements/2000-03-11) was rejected by some sites
running filters that declared the PFIR message to *be* spam--possibly
because terms such as "multi-level marketing" were included within the
discussion of spam problems. We don't really know what triggered the
rejections--you're usually not told specifically what content in a message
or Web page was deemed unacceptable by the programs.
While controlling spam is certainly a positive goal, it's obvious that you
cannot accurately determine the context of words via such crude techniques.
Systems that are keyword-based without human review are unsuitable for use
in *any* Internet content filtering application.
Unfortunately, content filtering systems based on ostensibly human-created
lists or human review seem to be equally inaccurate and obnoxious. Most
commercially available Web filtering programs contain "secret" lists of
sites to be blocked--the manufacturers often consider their block lists to
be proprietary and copyrighted. Operational experiences have suggested that
many of these lists are highly inaccurate, often blocking sites unrelated to
the announced blocking criteria. Health information sites have been blocked
as if they were pornography, for example.
In many other cases, blocks are so far off-base that it's difficult to
imagine how they could have occurred unless automated systems were actually
responsible for the listings. At one point, the well-respected PRIVACY
Forum was blocked by a popular filtering program, which had placed the Forum
Web pages within a "criminal skills" category. It turned out that the mere
mention of encryption issues within some PRIVACY Forum articles had
triggered this categorization! When contacted, the firm who created the
filter acknowledged the obvious inappropriateness of the block, and removed
the PRIVACY Forum from their block lists. The company never had a reasonable
explanation of how their human reviewers could have made such an error.
This brings up another critical point. Sites who are blocked normally have
no way to even *know* of their blocked status unless somebody attempting to
access the site informs them about it. Companies selling blocking software
don't normally even attempt to inform sites when they've been added to a
block list, nor are systematic procedures for appealing such categorizations
universally available. Sites have no reliable way to know which of the many
available filtering programs are blocking them, possibly completely
inaccurately, at any given time. Even after specific blocking errors are
corrected, such mistakes could recur again without warning.
These factors, along with the secretiveness with which the filtering
companies tend to treat their blocking lists, create an untenable
situation. Especially when such filters are being used by public entities
such as libraries and schools, they create the Orwellian atmosphere of secret
censorship committees, completely devoid of any genuine accountability. What
do the block lists really contain? Porn sites? Religious sites? Political
speech sites? We can't know if the lists are unavailable. This is a horror
in any modern public policy context. At a bare minimum, public institutions
should be prohibited from using any filtering software which does not make
its complete block lists available for public inspection!
Most manufacturers of filtering software are very serious about keeping
their lists hidden. In a very recent case, individuals who decrypted the
block list from one such package are being sued by the company involved, who
is also reportedly trying to learn the identities of the persons who accessed
those decrypted materials from related Web sites. While the detailed legal
issues relating to the actual decryption in this case may be somewhat
problematic, the intolerable fact that the block lists are kept hidden
seems to have at least partly driven this situation.
Outside of the rating procedures used by the commercial filtering software
packages, there are also a variety of efforts aimed at inducing all Web
sites to "self-rate" via various criteria, often with the suggestion of
penalties or sanctions in cases of perceived inaccurate ratings. In some
countries, as in the Australian case, these ratings are being mandated by
the government. In other cases they are being presented as being ostensibly
voluntary. But it's clear that there'd really be nothing voluntary about
them, since unrated sites would presumably be treated as "objectionable" by
many Web browser configurations that would implement the rating systems.
And again, we find ourselves faced with the problem of how ratings would be
evaluated for "accuracy"--given the wide range of opinions and world views
present in any society. To whom do we cede the power to make such
determinations in the international environment of the Internet?
It is particularly alarming to observe the extent to which the proponents of
mandatory filtering seem anxious to control Internet content that is not
similarly controlled in other situations. A common example frequently cited
is information about explosives. There is certainly such information
available on the Internet which could be used to harm both persons and
property. But much of this same sort of information is available in
bookstores, libraries, or by mail order. How do we draw the line on what
would be forbidden? Radical literature? Industrial training materials?
Chemistry textbooks? Are we really so anxious to dramatically alter our
notions of free speech across the board, not just relating to the Internet?
Free speech is by no means absolute, but blaming the Internet or Web for our
perceived problems is merely finding a convenient scapegoat, not a genuine
solution. Before we tamper dramatically with such fundamental concepts,
we'd better be very careful about what we wish for, and consider how the
granting of some wishes could potentially damage society and our most
In any case, personal responsibility, both in terms of our own behaviors and
when it comes to supervising the activities of children, must not be
replaced by automated systems. Taking responsibility is *our* job as human
beings--it is certainly not an appropriate role for our machines!
It should be interesting to see how many automated content filters the
vocabulary of this very document will trigger...
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Co-Founder, PFIR: People for Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
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