Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

BoingBoing fighting internet censorship

BoingBoing has recently been blocked in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and is also being blocked by various parental control filters. Rather than comply with the censors, it has decided to fight back and tell you how to get around censorship systems.
Because I know some regular readers are from the countries named and therefore won’t be able to read BoingBoing’s announcement, I’ve copied it into this entry – click ‘continue reading’ to view it. The content is Creative Commons licensed and I’ve kept the attributions so I should be allowed to quote verbatim.


> We’ve decided not to rejig our editorial process to make it easier for a censorware company to block us for their customers. Instead, we’re creating a clearinghouse of information on how to defeat censorware.
> Last week, we reported that Boing Boing was blocked by entire countries including the United Arab Emirates, and by many library systems, schools, US government and military sites, and corporations.
> Today, we’ve learned that Internet Qatar, the sole ISP in the State of Qatar, has also banned BoingBoing.
> We’ve heard from librarians in Africa who want to watch the video of the American Register of Copyrights denouncing Congress, employees at the Australian Broadcasting Company, students, and workers around the world who can’t gain access to our work.
> At fault is a US-based censorware company called Secure Computing, which makes a web-rating product called SmartFilter. But SmartFilter isn’t very smart. Secure Computing classifies any site with any nudity — even Michaelangelo’s David appearing on a single page out of thousands — as a “nudity” site, which means that customers who block “nudity” can’t get through.
> Last week, Secure Computing updated their software to classify Boing Boing as a “nudity” site. Last month, we had two posts with nudity in them, out of 692 — that’s 0.29 percent of our posts, but SmartFilter blocks 100 percent of them. This month, there were four posts with nudity (including the Abu Ghraib photos), out of 618 — 0.32 percent.
> In fact, out of the 25,000+ Boing Boing posts classed as “nudity” by SmartFilter, more that 99.5 percent have no nudity at all. They’re stories about Hurricane Katrina, kidnapped journalists in Iraq, book reviews, ukelele casemods, phonecam video of Bigfoot sightings (come to think of it, he doesn’t wear clothes either), or pictures of astonishing Lego constructions.
> Why is SmartFilter content to deliver a product with a 99.5 percent false-positive rate? Because it has promised its customers that it will stop their users from seeing nudity (fat chance — it’s a dead certainty that Smart Filter has failed to class innumerable sites containing nudity), and punishing 24,875 nudity-free posts to get at 125 that contain mild or “art” nudity is fine by them.
> Secure Computing told us that their categorization system protects kindergartners from being exposed to porn. We argue that not only are products like SmartFilter incapable of blocking all potentially kid-inappropriate sites, but why treat entire countries, or entire corporate sites full of working adults, as kindergartners?
> The question of keeping your child from viewing content you don’t want them to see can be addressed more efficiently locally, with tech tools like the browser Bumpercar. As BoingBoing founder (and father of two) Mark Frauenfelder explains, “My daughter and I found a bunch of great kid-friendly sites and have added them to the ‘white list.’ As a parent, I have local control of the sites she visits instead of handing over control to a remote group of people that I don’t trust to do my job of being a parent.”
> The fact is, there’s no effective way to censor the Internet in broad strokes. Only dumb CIOs and totalitarian governments like the UAE believe that adding censorware to your network will prevent the naughty stuff from slopping in. Having a human being review a few pages on a site every couple months is a perfectly adequate classification system, in SmartFilter’s lights — which is convenient, since a genuinely thoroughgoing review would be ruinously expensive.
> Secure Computing offered us a devil’s bargain: if we’d change the URLs of images with “nudity” (which, they assured us, included photos of Michaelangelo’s David) to something they could detect and block, they’d let the rest of the world see us again. That guy in the UAE who was worried he’d be imprisoned for trying to read BoingBoing would be OK again.
> We considered their offer, and decided not to do it. What happens when the next censorware company comes along with another editorial process they want us to engage in to help them censor the site?
> More importantly: why should we let a company that helps corrupt dictatorships oppress their citizen dictate morality to us?
> So instead we’ve decided to help put Secure Computing out of business. We’re doing this in three ways:
> * First, we’re publishing a guide to evading the SmartFilter censorware. There are hundreds of ways to defeat these censorware apps, and we’re going to catalog as many of them as possible. Permanent link.
> * Next, we’re compiling a list of SmartFilter’s dumb classifications. Send us your misclassified SmartFilter sites so we can add them to the list.
> * Finally, we’re producing a guide to convincing your employer to ditch SmartFilter. It consists of parts one and two above: a list of bad SmartFilter classifications and a list of ways that SmartFilter can be shredded like wet kleenex. Why spend money on bad technology that doesn’t work?
> Signed, the BoingBoing editorial team:
— Cory Doctorow
— Mark Frauenfelder
— Xeni Jardin
— David Pescovitz

6 Comments

  1. It’s quite funny in a way this – my work connection has started blocking the site too (no doubt related to this) but I can still read the text in my feed at Bloglines. The images are mostly blocked though.
    I’d read the instructions for getting round it but I don’t want to get sacked.
    I like their stance. Censorship sucks.

  2. Good on the boingboing team. There’s a time and a place for censorship – the time is never and the place is nowhere. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I’m rather glad we have no filtering on the internet access at work, although if we did I’d be in charge of it.

  3. quack: I work on providing backend infastructure for web access to schools serving 250,000 schoolchildren.
    Do you not think there is a case for filtering porn from little johnny at school?

  4. Unfortunately the link to the circumnavigation techniques is hosted at boingboing and therefore blocked (I’m in Qatar). Any chance you could post it directly on this site?

  5. BoingBoing practices censorship themselves. Go ahead and try to disagree with them in a comment. Lots of people have, and lots of people get censored. They’re total hypocrites. The moral of the story is this: BoingBoing’s position on censorship is “Censorship is bad when other people do it. It’s great when it’s used to censor opinions other than our own.” Do the hypocrite dance, everyone!