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It’s no secret that I think internet filters are not only unethical and counter to everything librarians believe in, but that filters also don’t work for crap.  And now the filters are finally fighting back.

Some customers of FortiGuard, WebSense, and Barracuda (filtering products marketed to schools and libraries) are reporting that the internet filters are blocking the San Jose Public Library’s new website, sjpl.org, from their customers and marking our library’s website as spyware, spam, and/or “inappropriate.”  Why?  No way to know and no ideas why.  Filtering companies don’t tell their customers or anyone else how and why things are classified the way they are.  It’s considered a “trade secret.”  This lack of transparency is one of the problems I have with the technology behind filtering software–you don’t know what’s there and never will.

While of course I don’t actually believe the filters targeted me (in case anyone missed that), this is a lovely and personal case example of how filters don’t work.  Filters mis-classify sites and block constitutionally protected content all the time.  And in case anyone is going to argue that perhaps the people who owned our domain before we did perhaps mis-used it, they did not.  There was nothing at the domain for over two years before we had it–it was simply empty and unused. Before that it was a squatter site for a couple of years…one of those nasty link-ridden sites we all hate so much.  And before that, it was the library’s website (they lost the domain somehow before I was hired).

If you want to read more about how much I think filters are unethical and ineffective at doing what parents and politicians think they do, you can read my chapter on internet filtering and intellectual freedom in the brand new Library Technology Report I coauthored with by Jason Griffey and Eli Neiburger: Privacy & Freedom of Information in 21st Century Libraries. Or you can read the two longer posts I’ve written about filtering: “SJPL Internet Filtering Study – Testing Results,” and “Why internet filters don’t work and why libraries who filter are wrong.” Or view the presentation I gave at the 2009 Internet @ Schools conference: Trying Not to Filter.

“Sarah hates filters & filters hate Sarah”

  1. Librarianry Says:

    The Barracuda Web Filter is also blocking SJPU’s new website. Whatever you did or said to filters, they are now enacting their revenge tenfold.

  2. Arthur Says:

    Does FortiGuard offer any explanation as to why this was caught in their filter?

  3. Dan Says:

    Websense is also blocking your site on our computers, I let the tech people know and hopefully they will fix it. But that’s just our computers. And totally, completely agree with you on filters.

  4. Tweets that mention Sarah hates filters & filters hate Sarah | Librarian in Black Blog – Sarah Houghton-Jan -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Sauers, David Lee King, Sarah Houghton-Jan, Christa Burns, WPL Reference Div and others. WPL Reference Div said: Sarah hates filters & filters hate Sarah: It’s no secret that I think internet filters are not only unethical an… http://bit.ly/9tPCGo [...]

  5. John Klima Says:

    I see someone else mentioned Barracuda already (and I emailed you about this, too). Very curious.

  6. Sarah Says:

    Yup, got WebSense & Barracuda reports via IM as soon as I’d posted this, and followed up with them too. This is seriously weird. I still have no clue why we’d be classed that way, and maintain that the domain hasn’t been that for *at least* two years. So perhaps these databases are working off of information and classifications for sites that are 2+ years old? That doesn’t speak highly for the accuracy of their products… Or perhaps their algorithms all have something in common that is classifying our site as “bad”? I don’t know. And we’ll never know, because why things are classified the way they are is “secret sauce” that the companies never share with clients or individuals. At any rate, I’ve filed appeals with the top 20 filtering companies now, as a preventative measure. The irony, the irony…

  7. John Klima Says:

    I can now see your lovely, lovely website. VERY impressive. I wish I had stopped in last year when I was in San Jose. :)

  8. Andy Woodworth Says:

    At least the feeling is mutual. I was reading a story at work about the crackdown on pedophiles in Thailand at work and to click through some filtering to get to the story. How loathsome on a news site.

  9. EC Says:

    FYI, We use the K9 Bluecoat system and have filtering turned on for both Spyware/Malware Sources and Spyware Effects. I just checked, and your website is NOT being blocked by K9. Of course, if you contacted them about it already, maybe it was being blocked before and the problem has been fixed already. (I haven’t had time to explore the whole site, but your front page looks great!)
    http://www1.k9webprotection.com/

  10. Chris Says:

    Our site (drupal too) was listed as a spammer, turned out to just be a matter of our mail server having a different name than our site. While I agree filters suck, they usually have nothing to do with content per se and are based on the best practices of server setup. Filters usually base their blacklists on various anti-spam sites, in our case, we were listed as a spammer by Spam Haus, we asked them why, they told us so we fixed it. Anyways, nice site, I really like your policy about who blogs.

  11. Tim Says:

    “listed as a spammer by Spam Haus, we asked them why, they told us so we fixed it.”

    Seems a shame that YOU had to be the one to fix it. Not only could someone at Spam Haus simply have looked at your site and made an easy determination in the time it took to respond to you, but the idea that their perceptions of what constitutes a valid site can change the way sites are built on a mass scale is frightening.

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