by Elisabeth Peelor

I had to write this article at home.

Usually, I write my articles at school, but sometimes I can’t, because some genius in the Arizona Senate thought it would be a bright idea to require all U.S. public schools and libraries to censor “inappropriate” material in order to receive certain funding. The websites I needed for research purposes were blocked by our friend Smartfilter, Bess edition, Healdsburg Unified School District’s censorship method of choice.

Smartfilter, Bess edition, once BESS and originally created by company N2H2, is now owned by Secure Computing Corporation (SCC) which in turn is owned by McAfee, Inc. SCC developed the “filtering” systems used in Iran and Saudi Arabia to block sites for religious, political, and human rights issues. This does not instill confidence.

What exactly is ‘inappropriate’ material? The 2000 bill that started it all – the Children’s Internet Protection Act or CIPA – was designed with the intent to block pornography and thus spare the virgin eyes of the innocent children, but inevitably the content blocked is decided by the individual censorware companies. These companies can and will block innocuous material simply because they disagree with it; examples from past controversies include human rights groups, gay and lesbian advocates and support groups, pro-choice advocates, safe sex advocates, eating disorder support groups, breast cancer awareness sites, and so on and so forth.

Most worryingly, while some of these sites are blocked due to faulty keyword blocks (news sites have been blocked for the words “over 18” used in conjunction – such as referencing casualties – as pornography) some, such as some breast cancer prevention sites, were tested and shown to have been blocked due to an employee at the company deciding that it was inappropriate. Along the same vein, many companies claim to check every blacklisted site by hand, but it has been proven that the majority of blacklisted sites are never reviewed by human eyes and are instead selected only by software. A 2000 study on BESS showed that up to 27% of sites blocked in a randomly chosen 1,000 site sample size were blocked in error. Additionally, many sites that actually do contain disturbing content are not blocked.

At HHS, websites blocked include MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Google image search, and notable anti-censorware sites such as Peacefire (disturbingly, instead of outright blocking Peacefire – in the past, BESS has labeled Peacefire as “pornogrpahy” – an error message comes up and says that the network connection timed out, when in reality the network timeout message was fabricated by the blocking software) among many other sites. Social networking sites are blocked, in part, because they are “distractions,” but also because user-generated content is harder for censorware companies to monitor.

Because of censorware, I could not write this article at school. Because of censorware, my art class does not have full access to photo reference from the web. Because of censorware, my Journalism class cannot access the Hound’s Bark Facebook page. Censorware inhibits students who are doing legitimate research for school, it prevents teachers from accessing educational materials, and all in all it does more harm than good. The district should reevaluate the websites on the required censorware’s blacklist and weigh the consequences. Removing YouTube, Facebook, and the like from the blacklists will benefit everyone – any student who would use the blocked sites to goof off in class would be goofing off regardless of whether or not those sites were blocked. Internet censorship is a detriment to the educational process and should not be in place.

And don’t even get me STARTED on what’s going on in Internet censorship in Australia right now…