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Weed the people.

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union..." Perhaps no words better convey the underpinnings of American government. Too bad some school children in Utah have been prevented from reading them - at least from one site on the Internet - according to a free speech advocacy group. The Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bible are just a few of the works screened from viewers in schools and libraries in Utah via Web filtering software, says a report by the Censorware Project.

To determine what information was being blocked by filtering software at Utah public schools and libraries, the report's authors examined a month's worth of log files of Internet usage. (The software program weeds out sites dealing with sex, drugs, hate speech, criminal skills, and gambling.) The authors found that only one in 260 site requests was blocked and that many of these bans were caused by banner ads - not requested by students - sent from Internet advertising companies. "This seemed to considerably inflate the number of banned accesses under the 'Sex' category," the authors conclude.

Students rarely surfed to objectionable sites, say the authors, but the software barred access to many "legitimate" sites. For example, an appeals court case about narcotics was banned under the drug category, and a page named for its author, Walter Wager, was blocked as a gambling site.

According to the report, access to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence was blocked when Internet users tried to find those documents on a site called - which the authors say contains hundreds of megabytes of valuable educational material. Because of the general nature of the logs, it is unclear what specific words triggered the filtering software to screen out the site. In an e-mail interview, however, report author Michael Sims speculated that the site has a machine name ("wiretap") that could be considered "suspicious," and was perceived as offering instruction in criminal skills.

Students could, of course, find the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence elsewhere online, Sims concedes, but he remains concerned about the overly broad reach of the software. The report's findings were enough to provoke reaction from the Utah Education Network (UEN), which administers the Web filtering. A UEN steering committee will try to identify "the most effective filtering solution for public education for our future." The study is expected to be complete by September.

Any new solution, while centrally administered, will have to be flexible enough to allow the UEN to block and unblock sites for individual school districts, says UEN spokesperson Rich Finlinson. For example, he says, if a high school class studying violence wanted to unblock bomb-making sites temporarily, "We'd certainly honor that request." Finlinson adds that the UEN plans to train administrators and faculty on acceptable use policies for public schools.

In fact, he says, the UEN's whole approach to screening is fluid. "We are constantly evaluating the way to approach the filtering issue. Just as the Internet is constantly changing, so is the way we filter Internet sites."

The UEN report is now available on SM Online.
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Title Annotation:use of filtering software in public schools and libraries in Utah to block objectionable information on the Internet
Author:Gips, Michael
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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