Lazy Censorship: It Can Happen Here

Or, Free Moose A. Moose!

I’ll say this for jury duty in New York City: they’ve added WiFi in the waiting rooms!  Given how much time prospective jurors sit around waiting, it’s a major improvement.

And surfing around, one quickly discovers that the local network blocks certain websites.  With some cursory exploration, it’s clear that this is a very arbitrary list that encompasses many legitimate sites.   It blocks game sites but also game news sites.  P2P sites but also news sites that cover P2P and digital rights issues.  Porn sites but also sites like 4chan, that, ok, host a lot of porn but also a lot of legitimate speech.  There’s a mysterious BLKLST category which blocks–on my cursory surfing–an Apple news site.  Bandwidth management you say? It doesn’t block Hulu, Netflix, or YouTube.

The filter uses categories that are visible in the URL.  I found four.

PR2PR&USER

Here’s where I expected the hammer to fall and indeed:

  • Solarmovie.eu — a pirate movie streaming site.  No.
  • Pirate Bay — no.

But the filter will also stop you from learning about IP enforcement from other sources

  • Torrentfreak — a file sharing news site that’s maybe the best place, ironically, to learn about filtering and blacklists.
  • www.bittorrent.com — the corporate site for perfectly legal bittorrent software

Elsewhere, someone didn’t get the MPAA memo.  Megaupload.com was accessible (this was pre-shutdown) but not the more industry-friendly Rapidshare (which is not explicitly blocked, but–like several sites–failed to load).

GPORN&USER
Also predictable, but overreaching:

  • www.4chan.com —   Are lolcats porn now?  For some, probably.

GGAMES&USER blocks

  • Poptropica – a flash game adored by my 7-year old
  • Noggin/Nick Jr.  – big with my 3-year old and home of the aforementioned Moose A. Moose

Apparently, they don’t want people playing games.  But PBSkids, which is a lot like Nick Jr. and also has games, is fine.  Did the PBS mafia get to them?

They also don’t want people learning about games.  Bye bye:

BLKLIST&USER
A mysterious category that blocks

  • 9to5mac.com  – sorry Mac news site.  What is your crime, I wonder?

Most overtly political stuff gets a pass:

  • Wikileaks.org
  • Al Jazeera.com

Other random visits:

  • EFF is fine
  • flickr (failed to load)
  • TMZ — ok.  So much for the moral uplift hypothesis
  • Techdirt — ok.  So you can go there to learn about blacklists (for now!).

Anyway, I was intrigued, so I tried to learn more about NY court system WiFi filtering policy.  I ended up talking to tech department staff at the Office of Court Administration in Albany, which sets these policies across some 300 state court houses.  I was hoping to hear a rationale for the weird choices of the filtering system.  No such luck.

They said it was based on an (unnamed) commercial product, and that the current filter list was the result of a sort of accretion of lists over time (they wouldn’t share details).  It wasn’t something they paid attention to on a regular basis, nor did it reflect, at this point, a clear set of guidelines.

This sounded entirely plausible to me!  My guess: they need a filter list for cover if/when some judge or NBC lawyer in the Manhattan juror pool calls.  But otherwise it’s a sinkhole for time and can only cause grief  (like this post! Sorry!)  And there’s no strong incentive to maintain consistency.  The Internet changes quickly, new sites can be periodically added, staff come and go, and nobody remembers the rationale for the old judgements even when they weren’t just bought from some third party vendor, so they stick.

To me, this suggests why filtering policies–in general–drift toward overreach and constraint on free speech.  All the incentives favor expansion of the list, whereas subtracting from it requires a lot of tedious, disputable judgement calls.  Absent complaints, where’s the foul?

Well, I have complained, and followed up, and haven’t heard back after a couple weeks.  So it’s time to take it to the court of public opinion!

Ps.  I’d be very interested to learn whether these practices are common in other states and/or state agencies.  Anyone currently doing time in a jury waiting room that can check this out?

Pps.  For those who missed the earlier memo, sign the Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest!

Ppps.  I neglected the obligatory SOPA/PIPA connection…  So, yes, censorship!  But more fun: censorship of some notable pro-SOPA corporate properties — Gamespot, NickJr.  (Viacom/CBS), Poptropica (Pearson).

 

 

 

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