What do a Texas Republican women’s organization, an abstinence education project in Georgia, and a border terrier club in Alabama have in common? If you guessed they were all represented at CPAC, think again. According to a new report from Citizen Lab, some popular online filters have miscategorized these groups’ websites as porn.
Every day, wholesome, morally upright sites like these end up on mysterious blacklists, out of view users whose employers or governments implement online filtering technologies. How does it happen?
H.C. “Moon” Mullins, a spokesperson for the Alabama/Gulf South Border Terrier Club, has one theory. Online filtering technologies may tag keywords “ordinarily used in discussing ‘dog matters,’ ” Moon said in an email, adding that “the word bitch is very frequently found on our website in describing the breeding, pedigree, etc. of dogs entered into competition or simply discussed. Bitch, of course, is the term used to indicate a female dog.” Joyce Yannuzzi, president of the New Braunfels Republican Women, explained in an email that a previous Web host had linked to Viagra from their site. They’ve since switched hosts, in addition to rebuilding the website.
A handful of blocked sites focus explicitly on sexual or reproductive health, provide resources to victims of sexual abuse, or combat child pornography. Because their content involves sexual terminology, many automated filters block access. This is the concern of many in the United Kingdom, where state-mandated filters are already blocking access to nonpornographic content. British ISP O2 recently fixed its filter, which previously blocked sites like Childline.org, an online resource for children that includes hotlines to report suspected abuse. (Another British ISP previously blocked all “gay and lesbian lifestyle” content by default, but now leaves this up to users.) Critics of that country’s “war on porn” are quick to point out the potential misuse of well-meaning censorship technologies by authorities.
Other miscategorized sites make no sense whatsoever. The University of Virginia’s German House—an on-campus residence for Germanophiles that organizes poetry readings and “daily haus dinners”—is classified as porn. Maybe lederhosen are now considered scandalous. A website for Honda enthusiasts in Korea is supposedly pornographic, too. In Serbia, it’s an aquarium vendor.
The blacklisting of innocuous websites is undoubtedly hilarious, but the technology behind it is often troubling. Blue Coat Systems—the primary target of Citizen Lab’s report—has previously been at the center of the debate on Internet censorship. In 2011, the Department of Commerce launched an investigation after the company’s network monitoring technology ended up in Syria, where it was being used by Bashar Assad’s regime to monitor users and block content. While it turned out that Blue Coat had not done anything wrong—it sold the devices to a third-party seller in the UAE, which then sold them to Syrian authorities—the case called into question the sale of surveillance and censorship technologies to repressive regimes elsewhere. According to Citizen Lab, Blue Coat systems are also employed by governments in China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, among others.
Blue Coat Systems did not respond to a request for comment. Blue Coat provides a website review form for users to look up specific URL categorizations and report any inconsistencies in the categorization process. It’s safe to assume they’ll be pretty busy this week.