Last Wednesday, the library board opened up its auditorium for two and a half hours for three presentations on blocking software. The local branch of the FRC went first and put SurfWatch through its paces. They showed an unfiltered Internet on the left, SurfWatch on the right, and demonstrated how a search on "breast cancer" was successfully not blocked. Then they put child pornography on the wall of the library auditorium, demonstrating what SurfWatch would block.
For my presentation, I had brought a computer, but asked them if they would mind my demonstrating the software's flaws on their own laptop, to show I had not misconfigured anything. They agreed.
I spent much of my presentation talking about the size of the Internet and why most blocking was done by robots. Then I spent several minutes just listing some of the sites found blocked in some of our earlier studies at the Censorware Project.
Then I turned to the keyboard to illustrate some bad blocks. I ran out of time before getting to most of them. Some I did show but so quickly that many of those watching may not have realized what was going on.
Afterwards, Kimberley Fraser, who gave the Family Research Council presentation, asked me about some of what I'd said. I ended up asking her if I could respond to her in the form of an open letter. She agreed.
Below is that letter.
Dear Ms. Fraser,
As you know, at Herrick District Library last Wednesday night, your group gave a demonstration of SurfWatch's successes and then I showed some of its failures. I went through these failures rather quickly and didn't give the audience much of a chance to see the details of what I was doing.
You asked afterwards if I could provide verification of some of these points of failure, and I am delighted to do so.
First of all, regarding the colossal list of wrongly-blocked sites that I spent so much of my presentation reading, please consult our Web site. These wrong blocks were found in our reports on five other popular blocking packages: X-Stop, Cyber Patrol, WebSENSE, X-Stop again, SmartFilter, and Bess. You will find these reports at http://censorware.org/reports/.
There was some confusion in the question-and-answer period about whether these wrongly-blocked sites were also blocked by SurfWatch. Surely not all, and I have no reason to believe very many of them, are still blocked by SurfWatch or any other software. As I explained, when wrong blocks are publicized, they are usually unblocked quickly to minimize bad press.
Now, regarding the errors of SurfWatch itself. Note that some of its past errors are cataloged at http://peacefire.org/censorware/SurfWatch/. I am not sure whether I found time to describe those erroneous blocks or not.
In any case, here is information that hadn't been reported before. The following are all sites which I had prepared for Wednesday night, not all of which I was able to demonstrate. Please consult with your technical staff and confirm that each of these URLs and searches is wrongly blocked using the same category ("Sex") that you use in your tests and that you would recommend for public libraries.
"Daisies for my Wife," by Harold Roppers, a science fiction short story.
"Sex, Lies, and Censorware," an essay by my colleague Jim Tyre that is critical of SurfWatch.
The bookstore at Intertain.com. Starting from that Web page, click "Browse," then "Love, Sex and Marriage." All categories of books on that page, 600 books total, are blocked, including books on domestic violence, natural childbirth, and African-American families.
"Marriage." A humorous look at marriage through the eyes of children.
"Sex and Politics: A historical look at affairs of state." A comparison of the Clinton sex scandal to scandals of other historical figures.
The World Wildlife Foundation maintains information about the animals found on the Galapagos islands. SurfWatch refuses to let us read about the Blue-Footed Booby.
Searches on the following phrases are blocked, on (almost) any search engine:
safe oral sex
abstain from sex
Sex, Laws and Cyberspace (book title)
Smart Sex (book title, safe sex guide)
Voyeurism in the French Novel (book title)
Save Sex (title of both book and FRC poster campaign)
"Television's New Voyeurism Pictures Real-Life Intimacy." The New York Times looks at shows like "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." (In the question-and-answer period, one gentleman suggested that this page was blocked for a suggestive photo that appeared in the print edition of the Times. Please confirm that the Web page has no photo.)
A Chris O'Donnell fan page.
"Alternative Healing Resources: A Reference Guide for Balancing Your Mind, Body, and Spirit."
"The Equality Project: Dedicated to promoting education and acceptance of all genders, sexualities, races, and religions."
"Diamond Gallery Sports Cards." Baseball and football cards for sale or trade.
Four of the thirteen anti-child pornography sites listed on Yahoo are blocked. "All Against Child Pornography," "Anti Pedophile Network", "Adult Sites Against Child Pornography," and "Defence for Children International."
The Starr Report, in every place it appears on the Internet (this URL is just one example).
And finally, the American Family Association, which launched the pro-blocking-software initiative in Holland, is blocked.
I believe your technical staff will confirm what I have found to be true: that all of these are blocked as pornography by your software. Please let me know what your team says. Thank you.