March 6, 2006
There are lots of ways to describe Boing Boing, the Web's obliquely subtitled "Directory of Wonderful Things," which draws millions of eyeballs to its relentless, stylistically minimalist scroll of high-weirdness each month.
By Tom Zeller Jr.
It is a site where, on Saturday morning, there were links to video games that "subvert post-industrial capitalism," federal legislation aimed at digital radio technology, a guitar made out of a toilet seat and a new species of brown shark.
"Access denied by SmartFilter content category," was the message a Halliburton engineer in Houston said he received last Wednesday when he tried to visit BoingBoing.net from his office computer. "The requested URL belongs to the following categories: Entertainment/Recreation/Hobbies, Nudity."
"When it happened I was pretty put off," said the employee, who did not want to be named because the topic involved company filtering policies, "as I enjoyed the little distractions it provided me during the workday."
It was a sentiment that, over the last two weeks, united oppressed employees--and citizens--all over the globe.
The culprit, SmartFilter, is a product of Secure Computing of San Jose, California. It is marketed in a few different flavors to corporations, schools, libraries and governments as a sort of nannyware--a way for system administrators to monitor and filter access to Web sites among users of their networks.
This is accomplished with a central database of millions of Web sites organized into 73 categories--things like "General News" or "Dating/Social" or "Hate Speech."
At some point late last month, it seems, a site reviewer at Secure Computing spotted something fleshy at Boing Boing and tacked the Nudity category onto the blog's classification. The company's database was updated and, from that point on, any SmartFilter client that had its network set up to block sites with a Nudity designation would now automatically block Boing Boing.
The impact quickly rippled across the globe, which had the ancillary effect of outing corporate and government SmartFilter clients, as their employees and citizens, now deprived of their daily fix of tech-ephemera, blasted their overlords in anonymous e-mail messages to Boing Boing's editors, who then posted them to the blog.
Plenty of Corporate Customers
Halliburton is a customer. So, apparently, are Fidelity Investments and American Express. And in the space of a few days at the end of last month, reports came in that citizens in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had also been blocked.
Cory Doctorow, a Boing Boing co-editor, contacted Secure Computing to inquire about the classification. In an e-mail message to Doctorow, a representative of the company pointed out that a post from early January about two books on the photographic history of adult magazines contained "pornographic" images. The representative also noted a separate image of "a woman nursing a cat."
But a look back reveals that the January entry made reference to two new books from the graphic design imprint Taschen. Yes, the books are about adult magazines, but they are history books. And as for the thumbnail-size image that appeared alongside the original post, well, if you have to squint, is it really smut?
But that did not appear to be Secure Computing's concern. According to the company's definition, the Nudity classification applies to sites containing "nonpornographic images of the bare human body. Classic sculpture and paintings, artistic nude photographs, some naturism pictures and detailed medical illustrations" are included.
"We classify Internet content into over 73 different categories so that customers can chose, by category, what types of Web content they want available to their organization," the company's chief executive, John E. McNulty, said in an e-mailed statement, adding that Secure Computing "has no control over, or visibility into, how an organization implements their filtering policy."
But even if one accepts that argument, the larger problem of context--a problem that has dogged would-be Internet rating and filtering schemes for years--remains.
"There is far too much content on the Internet for any one company to review manually," said Bennett Haselton, the proprietor of the anticensorship site peacefire.org, "so they have to cut corners. And they're going to fall further behind as the Web gets bigger."
Indeed, as the Boing Boing team noted last week, of the 692 posts made in January, only two contained any nudity.
And while there is no question that the tens of thousands of posts made at Boing Boing over the years have been weird, kitschy, cyberpunky, often techno-political and sometimes techno-sexual, they are very rarely nude.
"Committing resources necessary to properly identify the nature of tens of thousands of Boing Boing posts--and a handful of images with that total--would bankrupt Secure Computing," Doctorow said. "So in order to fulfill their promise to their customers, for Secure Computing, 1/2% is the same as 100%."
The absurdity of that calculus, along with the fact that sites featuring classical art like Michelangelo's "David" have also earned SmartFilter's Nudity designation, has inspired some bloggers to begin posting images of the statue--or just as frequently, a zoomed-in crop of David's germane anatomy--in protest.
And Boing Boing has also begun soliciting other "dumb" page classifications made by the SmartFilter reviewers.
In an e-mail message to Xeni Jardin, another of Boing Boing's chiefs, Tomo Foote-Lennox, a director of filtering data for Secure Computing, asked why the bloggers were starting a war. "We discussed several ways that you could organize your site so that I could protect the kids and you could distribute all the information you wanted," Foote-Lennox wrote.
Those "ways" included putting questionable images in a separate directory that SmartFilter could easily flag and block, or otherwise altering the URL's for certain kinds of Boing Boing content.
According to Jardin, the team considered it, but in the end it was a thought to be a devil's bargain. "Why help censors become better censors?" she said.
Instead, Jardin and her co-editors are compiling a catalog of tips and tricks that oppressed users everywhere, from corporate cubicles to China, can use to get around Internet censors and access information freely.
The growing list, published at boingboing.net/censorroute.html, includes one nifty workaround, first published in December at OReillynet.com, that simply pushes a forbidden URL through Google's translation tool.
The trick generated some positive chatter at OReillynet after it was first posted, but not from one user, atef25, who was still struggling to gain access to a site he was being blocked from--"the 2006 pornguide."
"Pls help me to open it," he wrote.
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