Who Watches the Watchdog? - 16-May-2005
Last Monday afternoon, a student at Takapuna Grammar School wanted to look at the anarchist website www.infoshop.org on one of his school's computers, as he had done several times before. This time, however, he found access to the site was blocked by software installed by the school and provided by a company called Watchdog.
The student made his concerns known to senior management at the school and to the anti-capitalist group Radical Youth, who did a bit of research and published the story on the Infoshop site.
The Fundy Post has been watching Watchdog for some time; it is not just at Takapuna Grammar that information is censored by this company. Last year, Watchdog was awarded a contract by the Ministry of Education to provide internet filtering services to public schools, paid out of Ministry funds but free of charge to the schools that choose to take up the service. Not only does Watchdog have filtering services for many schools on individual contracts, it now offers a service that few could refuse: free internet filtering, courtesy of the taxpayer.
In my other life as a Macintosh geek, I once attended a demonstration by Watchdog of their service, to staff and parents of a West Auckland primary school. It all seemed very reasonable at the time: the filtering works by comparing words and internet locations typed into school computers with a database administered by Watchdog. Fair enough, you might think; we need to protect the kids from all the nasty stuff on the interweb. However, as that old Roman bloke said, quis custodiet ipsos custodes - who guards the guardians? In this case, it seems, nobody. Watchdog maintains the database, apparently without oversight from any public body.
So, the obvious question arises: who are the guardians? Watchdog describes itself as a company founded on Christian principles. What kind of Christians are they, you may be asking; not surprisingly, they are the hardcore variety. Watchdog openly supports such organisations as City Impact Church (whose pastor, Peter Mortlock, joined with Brian Tamaki to protest against everything recently),
Focus on the Family (the NZ arm of Dr James Dobson's anti-gay and anti-abortion organisation) and Radio Rhema the evangelical broadcasting service. Watchdog also provides hosting services for our friends, the Maxim Institute.
Ah yes but, you might be saying, just because they have 'Christian values' does not necessarily mean they are not providing a responsible filtering service. Maybe not, but it is instructive to see how these Christian gentlemen go about their work. A little digging around in the technical pages of the Watchdog website reveals that the filtering services are based on the R3000 technology made by
8e6 Technologies. The R3000 uses a database, organised into categories, of objectionable web sites; Watchdog uses the same categories and the same list of blocked sites.
A little more digging reveals that the 8e6 Technologies is not just some faceless corporation. It used to be known as Log-On and it formed a partnership with the American Families Association to market internet filtering services for families. The AFA is one of America's leading anti-secularist, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-everything organisations. Here's what is has to say about the software: "The American Family Filter is built on the Christian principal of holiness and living a pure life. ... American Family Filter stands apart from other blocking software, employing a uniquely Christian approach to our content filtering. We adhere to a higher standard, because American Family Filter is a ministry first and foremost, and therefore we are accountable to a Higher Authority for the product we produce."
Log-on's X-Stop filtering technology was the subject of a successful claim by the American Civil Liberties Union against a public library which had installed it. The technology violated users' rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. An analysis of the case is available at censorware.net/reports/xstop/ X-stop went far beyond the usually accepted definitions of impropriety, to block sites such as The National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law, which describes itself as devoted to "legal issues affecting lesbians, gay men and bisexuals"; The American Association of University Women , which describes itself as a national organization that "promotes education and equity for all women and girls"; The AIDS Quilt site, for people interested in learning more about HIV and AIDS, with statistics on the disease and links to other relevant sites; a number of political sites hosted by the progressive ISP IGC.APC.ORG, including the "Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting" site and even The Religious Society of Friends , better known as the Quakers.
Log-on did not change its spots when it became 8e6 Technologies. On its website, 8e6 gives examples of the sites it blocks, which include www.infidels.org, a leading secularist information source, and the Queer Resources Directory 8e6 uses its own software called Mudcrawler to search the Internet for new and unclassified sites. Its staff then classify the results by hand. This is worth knowing, just in case anyone should say that sites can be blocked by accident: someone such as Watchdog, which says that innocent sites can be blocked if they use the same technologies as porn sites. Watchdog helpfully offers to unblock any sites which have been accidentally blocked.
Watchdog also provides a unique New Zealand service for its clients. Users can request that particular sites be added to the block list. As Watchdog says: "We will respond to your request within one working day and the site will be blocked should it match our criteria". Yes kids, it's fun, it's new! You can denounce websites you don't like to your internet service! If they don't like the websites either, then nobody can see them!
Which sorts of sites match Watchdog's criteria? One such is Happy Clapping Homos at a site run by Scott Stevens in Wellington which satirisies the activities of Destiny, Maxim and the other homophobic organisations in New Zealand. Craig Young, a contributor to GayNZ.com, tried to access Happy Clapping Homos from a computer in a public-funded organisation which serves adults. Watchdog blocked access. The website information that Watchdog returned showed that Scott's site had been categorised under 'Gay Porn'. If you go there looking for porn of any kind, you are going to be disappointed: there is none of that heaving, thrusting, throbbing stuff going on. So why should it be blocked? Perhaps because Happy Clapping Homos supported the students at a Wellington school who protested against Destiny Church hiring the school hall for homophobic ranting on sundays. Watchdog claims that it blocks more than 2000 new sites every day. One it does not block is the Destiny Church.
Returning to Takapuna, one of Watchdog's standard blocking categories is Anarchy, which is described as "information regarding militias, weapons, anti-government groups, terrorism, overthrowing of the government, killing methods, etc. Infoshop, the site the Takapuna Grammar School student tried to access, does not advocate violence or provide information on how to commit violent acts, but was obviously too 'anti-government' to pass the censor. Possibly, the student's previous visits to the site caused it to be listed, since Watchdog brags, "WatchdogÕs logs of accessed sites are analysed daily for any sites that may have been accessed that have not been categorised and these are fed back to the central database." Craig Young tried to access the Infoshop website from Palmerston North and found that Watchdog was true to its word: it was blocked.
New Zealand education has entered the Twilight Zone. Students can use the internet for study, but can only visit sites approved by a company run by fundamentalist Christians, who comb the records of sites visited by students to find new ones to ban and who encourage denouncement of sites they have not found themselves.They can do this because they have helped create a climate of fear where the internet is regarded as a lurking menace; they have used this fear to make profits and to impose their bigotry on students in our schools. Thanks to the Ministry of Education, this censorship is now available free of charge.
As that well-known anarchist and anti-christ, Mr Johnny Rotten, once said, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"