September 29, 2003

N2H2 "State Secrets" - part 2 - PR and "that was a lie"

There's a reason I don't do statistical studies on censorware. I hope the following historical account shows what's necessary to fight something like censorware company N2H2's "1,800 Percent Increase [in porn]" press release.

Years ago, in March 1999, Censorware Project released a report dealing with statistical analysis of SmartFilter. There's a long story about how this report came to be, including the fact that it would have died if I hadn't encouraged Michael Sims to continue when he despaired, and donated much system administration and programming in keeping my promise of support. He then rewarded me by initially cutting me off from all credit when, much later, the report was eventually finished and released. But I digress.

At that time, David Burt ran a pro-censorware website "Filtering Facts" ( - it's no longer active on the web, rumored because he's embarrassed these days by the harsh material, including the obvious links to the Religious Right - but I have an archive). In April 1999, he issued a press release of his own about the report, claiming "Study of Utah School Filtering Finds "About 1 in a Million" Websites wrongly blocked". David Burt is currently a PR person for N2H2. N2H2 is now being bought by the company which owns SmartFilter. It all connects.

Reading that April 1999 David Burt press release, it's clear why he doesn't want this material floating around the net nowadays:

It is difficult to understand how the primary author of the report, Michael Sims, could feel that these sites are appropriate for children in a school setting. An examination of the author's e-mail postings offers some insights into the values that he applies to such judgements. Mr. Sims has often said he does not believe that pornography harms children. In one recent post to the librarian's discussion list PUBLIB, Mr. Sims compared children viewing pornography to children reading the Bible:

Note I feel for Michael Sims here. I know what it's like to be smeared ...

SmartFilter picked up the statistical mendacity (leaving the personal attack), of David Burt's release, and later issued a company press release taking the tactic of claiming "CENSORWARE PROJECT UNEQUIVOCALLY CONFIRMS ACCURACY OF SmartFilter™ IN STATE OF UTAH EDUCATION NETWORK"

Now, in reaction to this, Censorware Project did not say that anyone who matters would read the report and know that the SmartFilter press release was untrue. Or that nobody believes a censorware company, so it doesn't matter.

Instead, Censorware Project did a follow-up report ( and to defend the study (and incidentally, Michael Sims), right on the website, the front page proclaimed:

This was a lie. Secure Computing then issued a misleading press release with that same lie, which prompted us to take action.

Later on, there was a front-page Slashdot article about "Censorware and Memetic Warfare":

Here's a look at one of the more annoying memes the opposition is using: a lie about the results of my very own organization. Click for more.

It's all reminiscent of Al Franken's book in the news, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them". Except here we have a fair and balanced look at censorware advocates' tactics (note truth is not in the middle).

By the way, I didn't have the slightest involvement with any of this liar-liar-pants-on-fire type response. But I did ruffle feathers when I'd point out that it obviously wasn't considered something which couldn't be done, as immature, undignified, unbecoming, don't get down to their level, etc. I have a saying : "It's always different when it's you".

And that brings me to the moral of the story - if you can't get heard, you'll be shouted down. I don't have the press-reach to fight back against mudslinging press-releases like those above. And I shudder to think what sort of Slashdot coverage I'd receive in a similar situation.

It matters.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , memoirs | on September 29, 2003 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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