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"BESS, the Internet Retriever" Examined

Bess, made by a Seattle-based blocking software company called N2H2, is the most widely used blocking program in American K-12 schools, blocking sites from over 16 million students according to the company.

If you are looking for information on how to defeat Bess, go here.

Company statements and evidence regarding how N2H2's blocked-site list is created

In 1998, the CEO of N2H2, Peter Nickerson, gave testimony before Congress in which he stated: "All sites that are blocked are reviewed by N2H2 staff before being added to the block lists." N2H2's first annual report, filed at the end of 1999, re-stated that all blocked sites were reviewed by staff before being blocked:

Our proprietary Internet screening technology continuously scans the Internet for content that fits into one or more of 32 categories. Our staff then reviews this content and places it in the appropriate categories. Use of human review avoids overfiltering, which is often a disadvantage of fully automated systems. [emphasis added]

However, all independent studies of Bess that have been conducted before or after these statements, found numerous examples of sites that were blocked even though it was impossible that a staff member could have looked at the sites and determined that they were "pornographic":

N2H2's annual reports filed with the SEC in 2000 and 2001 contained identical statements on the role of human review in the process of compiling their blocked-site list, but the wording is ambiguous:

Automated search is used to scan the Internet on a continuous basis to quickly identify Web sites that potentially fit into these categories. We employ a wide variety of techniques for this part of our automated categorization process including artificial intelligence, keyword search, and site associations and linkages. Once a Web site has been identified as fitting into one or more of our categories, it is stored in a database and prioritized for human review.
This was ambiguous since it's not clear whether N2H2 was saying that site was actually blocked at the time that it is "stored in a database and prioritized for human review", or whether N2H2 was claiming the site is not blocked until after human review has taken place.

However, in their annual report filed in 2002, N2H2 stated that some sites are blocked without first being reviewed by their staff:

Automated search is used to scan the Internet on a continuous basis to quickly identify Web sites that potentially fit into these categories. We employ a wide variety of techniques for this part of our automated categorization process. Through automated categorization or human review, Web sites are identified as fitting into one or more of our categories and stored in a database.

This was apparently the first public statement by N2H2 that sites are blocked by Bess without first having been reviewed by a human -- even though tests had shown for the previous five years that this was obviously the case.

Double standards for conservative anti-gay sites

In May 2000, Peacefire anonymously created several "anti-gay" Web pages on free sites such as GeoCities, each site consisting entirely of quotes taken from the Web site of a prominent conservative group such as Focus on the Family. Using anonymous HotMail accounts, we submitted each of these pages to N2H2 for review. N2H2 agreed to block all four nominated pages as "hate speech".

We then told N2H2 that four prominent right-wing Web sites were the sources of all the anti-gay quotes on the four Web sites that we created, and asked whether those sites would be blocked as well. N2H2 did not respond, and did not block the four conservative groups' home pages.

The archives of our correspondence with N2H2 during this experiment, and the records of where we found the quotes used to create the anti-gay "bait" pages, are online at

Blocking of free home pages

N2H2 is the only major blocking program whose default setting for schools is to block free home page servers such as GeoCities, Tripod and Angelfire. Individual pages on those servers can be un-blocked after being reviewed by N2H2, but the default is to deny access to free pages, and most of them are blocked. N2H2's category description page says, "Although many of these Web page providers post rules and regulations for content, they do not always adequately monitor this content." Ironically, although most of Peacefire's reports on Bess focus on blocked sites that contradicted the company's claims of "100% human review", most complaints that Peacefire receives about Bess are about its blocking of free home pages, an area where N2H2's claims are accurate.

However, there is also a potential conflict of interest in the fact that for several years, N2H2 derived revenue from displaying advertisements at the bottom of pages served to students, and on the Access Denied page saying "Bess Can't Go There". Since a user would be more likely to click on an advertisement on an "Access Denied" page where no other content was displayed, N2H2 was in a position where the more sites they blocked, the more revenue they would earn. And the blocking of free home pages accounted for a large proportion of sites that students were blocked from accessing (according to the complaints that students sent to Peacefire about Bess).

N2H2 no longer derives revenue from advertising to students, but their policy of blocking free home pages remains in effect.

Controversy over selling student tracking data to advertisers

N2H2 introduced its "Bess Partners" program in 1999, under which it would give schools the option to use its software for free, in exchange for the ability to display advertisements to students at the bottom of each served page, and on the "Access Denied" page displayed when a site is blocked. In 2000, it introduced its "Class Clicks" program, under which it would sell data about Web surfing patterns of students as a group (although not about individual students). Critics, notably Nancy Willard of the Responsible Netizen Project, charged that this violated the privacy of students by not getting permission from students or parents before monitoring their surfing habits and selling the data.

Only two customers purchased this research data from N2H2 -- one of them being the Department of Defense, which planned to use the data to design its recruitment advertising campaign -- before N2H2 discontinued the program in response to criticism.

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