SmartFilter's Greatest Evils

An anticensorware investigation by Seth Finkelstein

Abstract: This paper examines what the censorware product SmartFilter considered to be the worst websites, as measured by the number of categories under which the site was blacklisted. It was discovered that two broad classes of websites were maximally blacklisted. These were privacy/anonymity service sites, and language-translation services. In retrospect, this is in fact an obvious requirement of censorware, as any private or anonymous browsing ability is antithetical to the goal of control in censorware.

Note: The author of this paper, Seth Finkelstein, is the former chief programmer for the Censorware Project, and proud to be an honored member of Peacefire . This work, however, is independent and associated with neither organization.


SmartFilter is a censorware product made by Secure Computing . Censorware is software designed and optimized for use by an authority to prevent another person from sending or receiving information. Typically, this control is implemented at least in part by a huge blacklist of sites. There have been many investigations, notably by the Censorware Project and Peacefire , exposing bias, agendas, and inaccuracy in those blacklists.

I've been involved in many of those blacklist investigations. For this paper, I thought to do a slightly different investigation. Often, blacklists are subdivided into many categories - hypothetically, Sex, Drugs, Rock-and-Roll, etc. Rather than finding some feminist websites banned under Sex, or medical-marijuana political advocacy considered Drugs, I decided to take a different approach for a change. Consider the number of categories under which a site is blacklisted to be a type of evilness-index. I wanted to know which sites did SmartFilter consider to be of greatest evil? Which URL's were ranked as so vile, so corrupting, that they achieved a kind of censorware academy-award sweep, appearing in as many categories as possible?


There Can Be No Escape

The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.
-- John Gilmore (famous quote)

What if censorship is in the router? -- Seth Finkelstein

In hindsight, at least part of the answer should have been obvious. Censorware is designed to control access to information. Thus, the subject can never be let out of the blinder-box. It follows that all privacy and anonymity services, all websites that let a user receive material via an encrypted or private form, must be considered a threat to that control. Since the blacklist could be thwarted by using such privacy/anonymity services, these services must then be on the blacklist in almost every SmartFilter category (the NonEssential category , reserved for user-defined entries, was the only one not found below). And indeed, a who's-who of privacy and anonymity service sites turned out to be blacklisted virtually everywhere. This is a non-exhaustive list:

Note: SilentSurf has many aliases - listing them all has been omitted.

To be concrete, these are all blacklisted by SmartFilter as all of the following categories :

"Sex Related, Illegal Drugs, Hate Speech, Criminal Skills, Worthless, On-line Sales, Gambling, Personal Pages, Job Search, Sports, Games and Fun, Humor, Alternative Journals, Entertainment, Alternative Lifestyle, Extreme/Gross Content, Chat/Web-mail, Investments Information, General News, Poltics/Opinion/Religion, Dating and Introduction Services, Art/Culture, Cult/Occult, Usenet News Site, Self Help, Travel"


Restrained From Them

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. ...

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

-- Genesis 11:6, 11:7, 11:9, part of the legend of the Tower of Babel

The second broad group of websites which SmartFilter considered to be of greatest evil, was slightly more surprising - translation services. That is, sites which provided the capability of reading webpages written in a different language. What could be so offensive about the poor Babelfish ? A moment's reflection revealed this was the same issue as privacy/anonymity above. Even something as prosaic and useful as a web-page translation system is a threat. It is a possible means of escape from the information restrictions. So these websites must be blacklisted everywhere, again in virtually all categories. This is the requirement of absolute control. Once more, for a non-exhaustive list: Note: For some reason, when investigated, wasn't blacklisted in the categories Worthless and Alternative Journals (as well as of course NonEssential). Undoubtably an oversight which will be corrected.


For the reasons explained above, I expect there to be no trouble verifying this information. SmartFilter is probably not going to claim error and remove the entries (and try to pretend they were never there ...)


This paper carefully doesn't discuss the ideological permissibility of control, i.e. whether the authority relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or government-citizen. That's a social matter, a philosophical debate. The point here is that forbidding all privacy, anonymity, and even something as innocuous as language translation services, is a technical requirement of censorware. But people should be cautioned that there is no magic that says such control is technically effective in one context but not in another. Or, more concretely, maybe you can censor the net.

Version 1.0, November 16 2000

December 7, 2000: See also: "SmartFilter - I've Got A Little List"

Aug 14, 2001: See also: "BESS's Secret LOOPHOLE (censorware vs. privacy & anonymity)"

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