Site blocking antics

Rohit Khare (
Mon, 24 Feb 97 16:33:49 -0500

Excellent summary article on PICS by Paul Resnick in the current Scientific

It cites: Rating the Net. Jonathan Weinberg in Hastings Communications and
Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 19; March 1997

That document in turn, is also a well-done legal overview of the issues
surrounding ratings. I liked its summary of recent site blocking antics

It's also a cogent explanation of the difference between 'rule-based' ratings
and 'standards-based' rating systems (value judgements) and their standing.



Since blocking software first came on the market, individual content
providers have complained about the ratings given their sites. Not all of
those complaints relate to problems inherent to filtering software. For
example, some programs tend to block entire directories of Web pages simply
because they contain a single "adult" file. That means that large numbers of
innocuous Web pages are blocked merely because they are located near some
other page with adult content. Indeed, it appears that some programs block
entire domains, including all of the sites hosted by particular Internet
service providers. This is highly annoying to affected content providers. It
may be a temporary glitch, though; over time, it's plausible that the most
successful rating services will -- properly -- label each document separately.

Other problems arise from the wacky antics of string-recognition software.
America Online's software, for example, ever alert for four-letter words
embedded in text, refused to let users register from the British town of
"Scunthorpe." (The on-line service solved the problem, to its own
satisfaction, by advising its customers from that city to pretend they were
from "Sconthorpe" instead.)

Controversies over sites actually rated by humans are less amenable to
technological solution. One dispute arose when Cyber Patrol blocked
animal-rights web pages because of images of animal abuse, including
syphillis-infected monkeys; Cyber Patrol classed those as "gross depiction"
CyberNOTs. (The problem was worse because Cyber Patrol, following the
entire-directory approach described above, blocked all of the hundred or so
animal welfare, animal rights and vegetarian pages hosted at the Animal Rights
Resource Site.) An officer of Envirolink, which had provided the web space,
responded: "Animal rights is usually the first step that children take in
being involved in the environment. Ignoring companies like Mary Kay that do
these things to animals and allowing them to promote themselves like good
corporate citizens is a 'gross depiction.'"

Sites discussing gay issues are commonly blocked, even if they contain no
references to sex. Surfwatch, in its initial distribution, blocked a variety
of gay sites including the Queer Resources Directory, an invaluable archive of
material on homosexuality in America, and the International Association of
Gay Square Dance Clubs. It responded to protests by unblocking most of the
contested sites. Other blocking programs, on the other hand, still exclude
them: Cyber Patrol blocks a mirror of the Queer Resources Directory, along
with Usenet newsgroups including (which carries AP and Reuters
dispatches) and CYBERSitter is perhaps the most
likely to block any reference to sexual orientation, forbidding such
newsgroups as alt.politics.homosexual. In the words of a CYBERSitter
representative: "I wouldn't even care to debate the issues if gay and lesbian
issues are suitable for teenagers. . . . We filter anything that has to do
with sex. Sexual orientation [is about sex] by virtue of the fact that it has
sex in the name."

The list of blocked sites is sometimes both surprising and alarming. Cyber
Patrol blocks Usenet newsgroups including alt.feminism, soc.feminism,,, and
It blocks gun and Second Amendment WWW pages (including one belonging to the
NRA Members' Council of Silicon Valley). It blocks the Web site of the League
for Programming Freedom (a group opposing software patents). It blocks the
Electronic Frontier Foundation's censorship archive. CYBERSitter blocks the
National Organization of Women web site. It blocks the Web site of Peacefire,
a teen-run cyber-rights group, although the site contains no questionable
material other than criticism of CYBERSitter.

Authors' complaints about ratings are magnified, and made particularly
bitter, by the fact that the ratings of third-party labelling services such as
Cyber Patrol and CYBERSitter are trade secrets, and not disclosed.
So far as I am aware, no service takes steps to inform content providers of
the ratings it assigns to their pages. Content providers can discover their
ratings only by buying the various blocking programs and periodically
searching for their own sites.