July 24, 2008

COPA - "Children's Internet Protection Act" Censorware Politics Goes On

As has been widely reported, e.g. ACLU press release "a federal court once again upheld a ban on a law that would criminalize constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the unconstitutional Child Online Protection Act (COPA)". I've previously written several COPA blog posts, mostly about the censorware-related politics of the case.

To say something both meaningful and different from the herd, I'll point out that Susan Crawford has a post on COPA which extensively discusses the legal strategy STILL driving the promotion of censorware now. As in, right now, in 2008 and beyond. And she said it, not me.

"Justice Kennedy said then - that it is the Court's job to consider what alternatives are out there in the world to help parents, and to decide whether they're more effective/less restrictive than COPA ... Justice Breyer was very sympathetic to [an opposing] view the last time around. His point is that filtering doesn't count as an alternative to COPA."

Concluding in part:

This case is a big deal because it turns on the question whether private, edge-based solutions to speech issues should be taken seriously.

Note the language there: private (good good good) edge-based (buzzword) solutions (business jargon). Words like unaccountable or secret blacklist are not to be found.

These were the issues which led to a smear campaign waged against me due to my blacklist decryptions and extensive opposing censorware. (and people don't like to hear this, but objective evidence is that the mudslinging worked!). When I explain all the political reasons for what has happened over the years, I'm sometimes told (too often in a sneering, belittling tone) that the matter is ancient history. It's not. It'll continue to be significant into the foreseeable future.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:56 PM | Comments (3)
September 19, 2007

COPA ("Child Online Protection Act") Appealed

[Very early echo]

In the Child Online Protection Act ("COPA") case, regarding a US Internet censorship law based on the "harmful to minor" standard, the recent free-speech victory has now been appealed by the US government, according to an ACLU blog post

But clearly, it's far from over. We just received the government's opening brief to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, and even the government admits that it's got its work cut out for it. It will attempt to argue -- again -- that COPA's censoring guidelines are the least speech-restrictive way to keep kids safe from pornography. In other words, the government will argue that this federal law will do a better job keeping smut from your kids than parental guidance and use of Internet filtering software.

Note this may mean another round of censorware arguments where civil-liberties experts will say censorware works and government experts will say censorware doesn't work.

And even more money will go to fees ...

[Update: I misread the ACLU post - the appeal was filed earlier, this is the opening brief]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
March 28, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on COPA and the censorware effectiveness argument


"Would you be surprised to hear US civil liberties groups arguing that Internet censorship is cheap, easy, relatively effective and difficult to circumvent? While in reaction, the US government claimed that such efforts had an unacceptable amount of collateral damage?"

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:19 PM
March 25, 2007

Free Expression Policy Project on COPA and censorware

Worth echoing: Free Expression Policy Project on COPA (and censorware)

Ironically, in view of the ACLU's educational materials pointing out the massive censorship potential of filters, the ACLU and its fellow plaintiffs now presented experts touting filters' virtues, while the government, which had praised filters a few years earlier when it successfully defended a federal law that mandated their use in schools and libraries now pointed out their flaws. The ACLU explained its apparent inconsistency by saying that filters are fine as long as nobody is compelled to use them.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:46 PM | Comments (3)
March 22, 2007

COPA links roundup

I doubt there's anyone who reads my blog who doesn't already know what I think on the various topics. But since it is incumbent on me to pundit about the "Children's Internet Protection Act" - COPA decision, I'll round up a few pointers for my obligatory post.

Note the opinion wasn't a surprise. Nothing is certain, but it was highly expected to turn out as it did, given an earlier similar ruling by the same judge, and encouragement there by the Supreme Court. This round was basically a refresh of the evidence in the record, and nothing much changed there.

Basics: American Civil Liberties Union: Blog - COPA: We Won!: (h/t: Catherine Crump)

Today brings excellent news for free speech: A court declared the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a federal Internet censorship law, unconstitutional, and forbade the government from enforcing it. It has taken nearly a decade of litigation -- we first brought the suit in 1998, then called ACLU v. Reno.-- and two trips to the Supreme Court to achieve this result, so this victory for online free speech is especially sweet.

For "opposition research", it's also important to note what the censors have to say in reaction, e.g. Morality in Media:

"But even assuming that every parent with one or more computers in the home used [censorware] at all times on each computer and even assuming that [censorware] blocked all pornography and could not be circumvented by tech-savvy children, there would still be a huge problem -- namely, as children get older they increasingly have access to the Internet outside the home.

Lessig has his "HTM"proposal. I earlier sent him email with some extensive thoughts regarding it. I'll probably pass on a detailed comment or blog conversation. I can say things in private email about matters of history and free-speech politics that would be dangerous to put in a public posting. Tell it to the ACLU.

As to the censorware implications for me, well, I've written about that before

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:20 PM | Comments (2)

"COPA" Internet Censorship Law Loses Again

[Pure echo. Ready, set, pundit!]

As expected, the COPA ("Child Online Protection Act") decision found against the censorship effort:


PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A federal judge on Thursday dealt another blow to government efforts to control Internet pornography, striking down a 1998 U.S. law that makes it a crime for commercial Web site operators to let children access "harmful" material.

More later.

[ Update: COPA decision full text]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:01 AM
November 27, 2006

Psiphon vs. COPA - "When Titans Clash"

NYT: Web Tool Said to Offer Way Past the Government Censor (about Psiphon)

TORONTO, Nov. 21 -- Deep in a basement lab at the University of Toronto a team of political scientists, software engineers and computer-hacking activists, or "hactivists," have created the latest, and some say most advanced tool yet in allowing Internet users to circumvent government censorship of the Web.

... "Governments have militarized their censorship efforts to an incredible extent so we're trying to reverse some of that and restore that promise that the Internet once had for unfettered access and communication," Dr. [Ron] Deibert said.

Now let's compare Ed Felten's testimony in the "COPA" trial:

Q. ... I want to discuss with you the ease which filters can be circumvented. Do you have an opinion regarding the ease with which minors can circumvent Internet filtering technology?

A. Yes, I do.

Q. What is your opinion?

A. My opinion is that it's quite difficult for minors to circumvent filters.

[Later ...]

There are some other methods in which the user could try to set up their own intermediary site on some other computer, and that turns out to be fraught with all kinds of technical difficulties. You really have to have a lot of facility with installing and configuring networking software in order to have any hope of getting that to work in practice.

Now, of course, both might agree that's the current state of affairs.

But either changing that state of affairs will succeed, in which case one of the pro-censorware arguments against the "Child Online Protection Act" will then be invalidated. Or it will fail, in which case, you can censor the Internet.

Pick one (and don't shoot the messenger).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:33 AM | Comments (2)
November 20, 2006

COPA - Closing Argument - ACLU: Censorware Works, Govt: Censorware Doesn't Work

In the closing arguments of the "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA) Internet Censorship trial, the censorware "talk-up" vs. "talk-down" divide was prominent.

ACLU press release, censorware "talk-up":

... But as the ACLU showed during the trial, Internet filters would be far more effective at blocking sexually explicit Web sites.

... "It is also clear that other alternatives, including education and filtering, are far more effective for those parents who want to limit access by their children to certain websites using their own values."

[later] ... In addition, according to the government's own expert, America Online's filter blocks more than 98 percent of all sexually explicit sites.

Now let's compare the government statements (AP article), the censorware "talk-down"

PHILADELPHIA - Justice Department attorneys, defending a law aimed at keeping online pornography from minors, argued that software filters often block valid sites -- on gay rights or sexual health, for example -- that teens might seek out.

"Filters are hindering minors from learning about the world around them. That's a huge problem," government lawyer Joel McElvain said Monday. "There may be reasons the teenagers have problems speaking to their parents about these (issues)."

Here's where the side-switching happens, that people sometimes mistakenly refer to as a "contradiction". It's formally consistent for the ACLU to argue that parents can use censorware on minors, and the government shouldn't apply censorware to adults in public libraries. But the issue tends to drift from those bare control-rights based statements. Here, the ACLU is "talking-up" censorware in their own press release ("more than 98 percent"!). While the government is "talking-down" censorware in their public comments ("hindering minors"). These are not legal statements, but short bits for popular consumption. Both would agree that censorware catches some porn sites and makes mistakes. But the switch comes that here the ACLU is emphasizing the accurate part and the government is emphasizing the inaccurate part, while in a library censorware case, the emphasis would be reversed. And more deeply, that the accurate aspect is claimed to be what matters, while the inaccurate aspect is dismissed as an acceptable cost (and elsewhere, vice-versa)

On a personal note, I'm hoping this all helps me get across to people what I went through in trying to get support in opposing censorware. And why those issues are still a factor. But I'm probably being over-optimistic. [sad face image]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
November 16, 2006

COPA - Court: "people claim confidentiality on everything from soup to nuts"

As a coda to the censorware research results, this is an interesting statement on confidentiality by the judge in the "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA) Internet Censorship trial (November 8):

The Court: ... The court is well aware from experience, and nobody in the room would think otherwise, people claim confidentiality on everything from soup to nuts when they are deposed.

When the chips fall down, or come down to the bottom, they waive it or they don't care about it, because it was 10 years ago. But they assert the confidentiality out of protective mechanism and then it may not be important to them. It may not be important. They may keep asserting it until they are on the witness stand.

And I say, do you really have to assert that? I can't figure out what the business purpose is. And then they say, well, all right. So who knows. Protective orders are like a sponge. They soak up everything until the chips are down. And when they are down we will see what happens.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
November 15, 2006

COPA - Censorware Report Media Coverage And "1 Percent" Result

More news articles are being written about the Child Online Protection Act censorware report. I've dug up a reference to illustrate what I keep saying about there being no surprise in the conclusion:

Here, Accessibility and Distribution of Information on the Web, 1999:

Information distribution

83% of sites contain commercial content and 6% contain scientific or educational content. Only 1.5% of sites contain pornographic content

COPA censorware expert-witness report 2006:

About 1 percent of the websites in the Google and MSN indexes are sexually explicit.

Yes, another go-around in 2006 is a nice confirmation and additional data-point. But essentially nothing has changed. Which means that whatever one's position beforehand about censorware and COPA, there's nothing changed from this study.

The only thing which has changed is to temporarily quiet the objection that those other studies were old and hence no longer valid. Oh, and maybe debunking media hype about how The Internet Is For Porn.

[Update - Consider this item in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Net not so dirty?

Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet is loaded with porn. But, according to the San Jose Mercury News, only 1 percent of all Web pages contain sexually explicit material (based on random samples taken from the Yahoo, MSN, Google and AOL search requests). This may well be meaningless, though, because the analysis cannot reveal whether this is a declining or increasing amount or whether the weight of the estimated 55 million blogs is drowning out the porn. Seth Finkelstein, a civil-liberties activist quoted in the piece, has another theory. "What we are learning about the Internet is that it reflects life and that the Internet is not -- contrary to what some people might think -- more sexual than people are in general."

Note, exactly what I've said - the value in this study is getting the word out to "conventional wisdom". The writer is apparently unaware that the results are consistent with other studies going back several years, because that's not the "conventional wisdom". ]

Z-list blues note: The MSNBC / FT.com article has this statement:

The findings, first reported in the San Jose Mercury News, were disclosed in Federal court in Philadelphia last week during the latest hearing into the ACLU's injunction.

Cough. Ahem, ahem, ahem ... Not that I'm especially annoyed - as I said, the findings were released in an authorized email to many reporters and other interested case-watchers. But I do think I had the first material on the web about it. Again, it doesn't matter, as I didn't really do anything except be awake at the time (which is a dubious achievement) and have a blog. So I'm noting this more for amusement than anything else. But it's yet another little point about the silliness of blog triumphalism.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:10 AM | Comments (3)
November 14, 2006

Quoted in Mercury News about COPA Censorware Report

Study: About 1 percent of Web pages have sexually explicit material

Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and civil-liberties activist, said Google's stance was "horribly self-serving."

"There were no privacy implications in the sense that the data was restricted to a very small set of researcher who were under various sets of protective orders," Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein said Stark's findings about the prevalence of pornography on the Internet are similar to other academic studies.

"What we are learning about the Internet is that it reflects life and that the Internet is not -- contrary to what some people might think -- more sexual than people are in general."

The quotes are accurate, though of course it was a small part of a much longer conversation.

I'm climbing the pundit-ladder! :-)

[h/t: Catherine Crump]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:49 AM | Comments (6)
November 13, 2006

"Google Subpoena"-related Expert Report On Censorware Now Released

[Small scoop, though several reporters will probably have items shortly - updated with full report ]

The expert witness censorware report which set off the media frenzy Google Subpoena has now been released, almost completely. There are only some small redactions having to do with specific numbers related to various sizes of search engine indexes, which the companies regard as proprietary information.

I was on a list of recipients who inquired and received the full text in a mailing when it was approved for release by the Department Of Justice. As the report will probably show up on the big search blogs, I'll save my disk space and let them post it. It's not all that, err, sexy, anyway.

Money shot:


This study reports on the Google and MSN indexes, on AOL, MSN and Yahoo! queries, and on the most popular Wordtracker queries. About 1 percent of the websites in the Google and MSN indexes are sexually explicit. About 6 percent of queries retrieve a sexually explicit website. Nearly 40 percent of the most popular queries retrieve a sexually explicit website. Close to 90 percent of the sexually explicit websites retrieved by queries are domestic. Filters that block more of the sexually explicit websites also block more of the clean websites. The most restrictive filter blocks about 94 percent of the sexually explicit search results, but also blocks about 13 percent of the clean results. Of the sexually explicit websites that get through the filters, 30 percent to 90 percent are domestic.

The number of sexually explicit websites is huge. Search results often include sexually explicit material. A lot of sexually explicit material is not blocked by filters. Of that, a substantial percentage is domestic.

[But we all knew that last paragraph already ...]

[Update: Looks like nobody else bothered:-), and it turns out I can host it, so here it is:]

Main Report:




Supplement 2:


Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:33 AM | Comments (1)
November 10, 2006

COPA - Censorware Statistics Studies Reported

The "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA) Internet Censorship trial discussed censorware statistics on 11/8, where we finally got to hear the results from the report which sparked the net firestorm of the Google Subpoena.

Executive Summary: blah, underblocking, blah blah, overblocking, blah blah blah, number number ...

It was without a doubt the most statistical sophisticated expression of the idea that a censorware blacklist catches some stuff but not everything, and usually more than intended. All else is elaboration. And frankly, I've yet to find anyone for whom the precise numbers make much of a difference. Maybe the judge cares here.

Most amusing moment:

A. No. As I answered previously, I think that one needs to consider the overblocking as well as the underblocking. If all you were concerned about was underblocking, you could just disconnect the computer from the Internet.

Q. What would the effect be of disconnecting the computer from the Internet?

A. There would be no underblocking at all, however, the overblocking would be rather severe.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:00 AM | Comments (1)
November 08, 2006

COPA - Who's Gettin' Paid

There's an interesting mercenary detail over at the Nerve.com "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA) trial blog, discussing an expert witness report:

The difference, as we will learn from some very erudite excerpts of the DOJ's Expert Report of Stephen Roy Albert Neale, an up-and-coming analytical philosopher so legit he has his own Wikipedia entry, is that while the guys on the ACLU side (who are totally gay for Neale) do this stuff for free, Neale gets paid $300 an hour by America.

I suspect there's some confusion in that paragraph between being a trial witness, which is almost always unpaid, and an expert witness, which is sometimes paid (possibly very highly) and sometimes for just For The Cause. It doesn't automatically follow that the civil-liberties expert witnesses are unpaid. While it's technically public information, people don't like to talk about it (I have what I view as a running joke with someone that when they're looking for expert witnesses, I'd be happy to let bygones be bygones for one of the "six figure" plums, and nothing says "I'm sorry" like a big fat consulting fee. I probably find this much funnier, in a gallows-humor way, than they do). It is true than even when the civil-liberties people are paid, they generally get much less than corporate types.

There's also this nugget in the 11/07 transcript:

Q. And the cost of the study that you have done for the Department Of Justice to date is over a million dollars, is that correct?

A. I'm led to believe that is correct. I did not bill it myself so -- ...

Note, before anyone starts making what they think are clever suggestions for me, that, if nothing else, you need to have the right political contacts to get one of those jobs, and I don't qualify.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:19 PM | Comments (4)
October 27, 2006

COPA - Civil-Liberties Witnesses Say Internet Censorship Effective And Easy

[Very interesting testimony on this topic in the "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA) Internet Censorship trial. As I say about censorware, if it works on minors in America, it'll work on citizens in China. And if it doesn't work on citizens in China, it won't work on minors in America. It's irrelevant here that someone may hold the social values that it's OK regarding minors in America, and not OK regarding citizens in China. The technical issue is the same. Pick one, but you can't have it both ways.]

[Lorrie Faith Cranor, 10/24]

Q. What steps did filtering companies take to make sure that their products can't be circumvented? Can you give us a few examples?

A. Well, so they monitor the various websites where children talk about how to circumvent the products and they -- when they hear about techniques they make sure that their software is not susceptible to those techniques and they use -- they password protect all aspects of the software, such as changing the settings and removing it.

[Note that while the answer uses the term "children", it works equally well with "political dissents" - indeed, those are not mutually exclusive categories, given student protest!]

[Ed Felten testimony, 10/25]

Q. ... I want to discuss with you the ease which filters can be circumvented. Do you have an opinion regarding the ease with which minors can circumvent Internet filtering technology?

A. Yes, I do.

Q. What is your opinion?

A. My opinion is that it's quite difficult for minors to circumvent filters.


Q. You mentioned a second approach to circumvention. What was that approach?

A. Second approach is to try to somehow route the Internet traffic through some kind of intermediary on the net in the hope of obscuring what is going on so the filter would not block it.

Q. What are the difficulties of that approach?

A. Well, there are a number of -- there are a number of different ways this approach can be tried.

One method is to try to find -- is to use one of a well-known set of sites on the net that will act as an intermediary for your web traffic. And the difficulty with using that method is that the filtering companies know about these sites as well. And so if they see traffic that tries to go to one of these well-known proxy or intermediary sites, the filter can just block that traffic. The filter will notice that this looks like an attempt to circumvent the filter and it can just block that traffic.

There are some other methods in which the user could try to set up their own intermediary site on some other computer, and that turns out to be fraught with all kinds of technical difficulties. You really have to have a lot of facility with installing and configuring networking software in order to have any hope of getting that to work in practice.

[I should note I actually agree with him, but don't want the arguments it usually gets me, or accusations of defeatism or "sour grapes", with those who believe censorware circumvention is substantially workable - take it up with him, not me!]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:49 PM | Comments (8)
October 26, 2006

Department of Justice Says Censorware Doesn't Work

[For "amusement", I present here an excerpt of the "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA) Internet Censorship trial (10/23), where in an opening statement, as part of their strategy, government lawyer Eric Beane argues vigorously that censorware does not work. My snark in brackets]

The evidence will show that a shocking amount of pornography slips through these filters and into the hands of children. The evidence will show that the patchwork of status quo solutions is not working well enough.

[Shocking. Censorware doesn't work. Later he really gets into this:]

We provided pictures to you that got through filters tested by plaintiffs' own expert. Each of those pages had gotten through a filter. And you are also going to hear testimony from our experts, Paul Mewett and Philip Stark, describing their comprehensive study of the effectiveness of the filters.

[They can prove it. It's science.]

The results of the study confirm what the public already knows. Filters don't solve the problems.

One filter failed to block over 60 percent of the sexually explicit web pages it was tested against, over 60 percent. We refer to this problem as underblocking.

Many other filters missed more than 25 percent of those sexually explicit websites.

Even the filter that underblocked the least sexually explicit pages still allowed 8.6 percent of the sexually explicit pages through. Don't let a small percentage fool you. This percentage translates to hundreds of millions of sexually explicit pages.

[Porn pornn pornnn, it's everywhere ...]

If a water source was mixed with a sewer system, and you had a filter that screened out but 6.6 percent of it, would that be a solution to the problem? Would that cure the problem of the drinking water? I think that analogy works here with kids. It's the fact that there are still all of these images there, there were speeches that can be done directed at the source that can address that problem where filters will never be able to.

[Trying to bail the ocean with a spoon doesn't work. But, I must say, neither does commanding the waves.]

A low underblocking rate also comes at a cost. The filters that are most successful at blocking out sexually explicit pages also block out many other pages that contain no sexual content at all. 23.6 percent of the pages that were blocked had no sexual explicit content.

[You heard him! Censorware doesn't work!]

For example, one filter even blocked a website promoting a marathon to raise funds for breast cancer research. Part of the CIA's World fact Book was blocked. And a page with an ACLU calendar. In fact each of the plaintiffs websites in this case was blocked by at least one filter, and the united states has consistently taken the position that none of the plaintiffs' websites are covered by COPA.

[The "breast" issue isn't obsolete, it's still a problem!]

So in the absence of the solution offered by COPA, parents are left with a very difficult choice of allowing their children to be exposed to sexually explicit material or of cutting off their children's access to a significant portion of other materials on the worldwide web, materials that in many cases are necessary for a child to complete his homework.

[Wow - Censorware interferes with children's ability to do homework. The government wouldn't say it if it weren't true, right?]

As you might imagine the task of keeping an up-to-date black list is mammoth. It is simply impossible to catalog the entire worldwide web. So the overall effectiveness of a filter will always depend on the performance of automated classification software or dynamic filtering.

On this point you will hear from Dr. Stephen Neale who is a nationally renowned expert in linguistics. He will explain that image filtering does not work and that robot filters that operate by sorting language and text will never be able to stop pornographic images from reaching children.

[It's an impossible task - you have word of the US Department Of Justice on it]
[Of course this is posturing - but the quotes might be useful for anyone dealing with a censorware-maker]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:21 AM | Comments (4)