PRIVACY Forum Archive Document
PRIVACY Forum Digest Saturday, 18 March 2000 Volume 09 : Issue 11 (http://www.vortex.com/privacy/priv.09.11) Moderated by Lauren Weinstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) Vortex Technology, Woodland Hills, CA, U.S.A. http://www.vortex.com ===== PRIVACY FORUM ===== ------------------------------------------------------------------- The PRIVACY Forum is supported in part by the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Cable & Wireless USA, Cisco Systems, Inc., and Telos Systems. - - - These organizations do not operate or control the PRIVACY Forum in any manner, and their support does not imply agreement on their part with nor responsibility for any materials posted on or related to the PRIVACY Forum. ------------------------------------------------------------------- CONTENTS Internet Content Control and Ratings (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator) *** Please include a RELEVANT "Subject:" line on all submissions! *** *** Submissions without them may be ignored! *** ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- The Internet PRIVACY Forum is a moderated digest for the discussion and analysis of issues relating to the general topic of privacy (both personal and collective) in the "information age" of the 1990's and beyond. The moderator will choose submissions for inclusion based on their relevance and content. Submissions will not be routinely acknowledged. All submissions should be addressed to "email@example.com" and must have RELEVANT "Subject:" lines; submissions without appropriate and relevant "Subject:" lines may be ignored. Excessive "signatures" on submissions are subject to editing. Subscriptions are via an automatic list server system; for subscription information, please send a message consisting of the word "help" (quotes not included) in the BODY of a message to: "firstname.lastname@example.org". Mailing list problems should be reported to "email@example.com". All messages included in this digest represent the views of their individual authors and all messages submitted must be appropriate to be distributable without limitations. The PRIVACY Forum archive, including all issues of the digest and all related materials, is available via anonymous FTP from site "ftp ftp.vortex.com", in the "/privacy" directory. Use the FTP login "ftp" or "anonymous", and enter your e-mail address as the password. The typical "README" and "INDEX" files are available to guide you through the files available for FTP access. PRIVACY Forum materials may also be obtained automatically via e-mail through the list server system. Please follow the instructions above for getting the list server "help" information, which includes details regarding the "index" and "get" list server commands, which are used to access the PRIVACY Forum archive. All PRIVACY Forum materials are available through the Internet Gopher system via a gopher server on site "gopher.vortex.com/". Access to PRIVACY Forum materials is also available through the Internet World Wide Web (WWW) via the Vortex Technology WWW server at the URL: "http://www.vortex.com"; full keyword searching of all PRIVACY Forum files is available via WWW access. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- VOLUME 09, ISSUE 11 Quote for the day: "What a dump!" -- Rosa Moline (Bette Davis) "Beyond the Forest" (Warner Bros.; 1949) -- Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Warner Bros.; 1966) ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2000 09:02:43 -0800 (PST) From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator) Subject: Internet Content Control and Ratings Greetings. A new PFIR (People For Internet Responsibility) statement discusses the controversial issues of Internet content control, filtering, ratings, and related topics. Since there are significant privacy components to these areas, I am including the complete statement for this PRIVACY Forum Digest. --Lauren-- ---------------------------------- PFIR Statement on Content Control and Ratings (http://www.pfir.org/statements/2000-03-18) PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org [ To subscribe or unsubscribe to/from this list, please send the command "subscribe" or "unsubscribe" respectively (without the quotes) in the body of an e-mail to "email@example.com". ] 2000-03-18 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 can provide. 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 cherished precepts. 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... --Lauren-- Lauren Weinstein firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com 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 ------------------------------ End of PRIVACY Forum Digest 09.11 ************************
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