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Privacy Digest 09.11

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<font size=+2><b>PRIVACY Forum Archive Document</b></font>

<A href="/privacy"><h3>PRIVACY Forum Home Page</h3></A>

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<A href="http://www.pfir.org"><b>PFIR - "People For Internet Responsibility" Home Page</b></A>

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PRIVACY Forum Digest      Saturday, 18 March 2000      Volume 09 : Issue 11

                (<A HREF="http://www.vortex.com/privacy/priv.09.11">http://www.vortex.com/privacy/priv.09.11</A>)

            Moderated by Lauren Weinstein (<A HREF="mailto:lauren@vortex.com">lauren@vortex.com</A>)         
              Vortex Technology, Woodland Hills, CA, U.S.A.
                         <A HREF="http://www.vortex.com">http://www.vortex.com</A> 
                       ===== PRIVACY FORUM =====              

                 The PRIVACY Forum is supported in part by
               the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery)     
                 Committee on Computers and Public Policy,      
                 Cable &amp; 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.

        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 "<A HREF="mailto:privacy@vortex.com">privacy@vortex.com</A>" 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:
"<A HREF="mailto:privacy-request@vortex.com">privacy-request@vortex.com</A>".  Mailing list problems should be reported to
"<A HREF="mailto:list-maint@vortex.com">list-maint@vortex.com</A>". 

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 <A HREF="ftp://ftp.vortex.com/">ftp.vortex.com</A>",
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 "<A HREF="http://gopher.vortex.com">gopher.vortex.com</A>/".  Access to PRIVACY Forum
materials is also available through the Internet World Wide Web (WWW) via
the Vortex Technology WWW server at the URL: "<A HREF="http://www.vortex.com">http://www.vortex.com</A>";
full keyword searching of all PRIVACY Forum files is available via
WWW access.


     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:    <A HREF="mailto:lauren@vortex.com">lauren@vortex.com</A> (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



                PFIR Statement on Content Control and Ratings

                 (<A HREF="http://www.pfir.org/statements/2000-03-18">http://www.pfir.org/statements/2000-03-18</A>)

        PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility - <A HREF="http://www.pfir.org">http://www.pfir.org</A>

        [ 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 "<A HREF="mailto:pfir-request@pfir.org">pfir-request@pfir.org</A>". ]


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" (<A HREF="http://www.pfir.org/statements/2000-03-11">http://www.pfir.org/statements/2000-03-11</A>) was rejected by some sites
running filters that declared the PFIR message to <B>be</B> 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 <B>any</B> 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 <B>know</B> 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 <B>our</B> 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 Weinstein
<A HREF="mailto:lauren@pfir.org">lauren@pfir.org</A> or <A HREF="mailto:lauren@vortex.com">lauren@vortex.com</A>
Co-Founder, PFIR: People For Internet Responsibility - <A HREF="http://www.pfir.org">http://www.pfir.org</A>
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum - <A HREF="http://www.vortex.com">http://www.vortex.com</A>
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy


End of PRIVACY Forum Digest 09.11

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<font size=-2>Copyright &copy; 2001 Vortex Technology.  All Rights Reserved.</font> 


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