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SurfWatch examined

SurfWatch gained some fame in February 1996 with the story of their first keyword-blocking faux pas, when NetSurfer Digest reported that SurfWatch blocked access to the White House page about Bill, Hillary, Al and Tipper. The page was called "couples.html", which caused it to be blocked (the webmaster renamed it "principals.html" to solve the problem). The incident remains the most famous example of SurfWatch keyword blocking, notwithstanding the story of SurfWatch being purchased by the Archie R. Dykes Medical Library in a move that effectively blocked the library staff from browsing their own Web site.

But it wasn't the first time SurfWatch was criticized for blocking sites inappropriate. In September 1995, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (which itself has been blocked by four other programs) issued a press release criticizing SurfWatch for blocking a number of gay/lesbian resources. Internet activist Christopher Kryzan had circulated a message about two months ago. He gave a list of the following sites that were blocked by SurfWatch (many of these links no longer work):

Following the press release from GLAAD, many of these sites were unblocked, and SurfWatch's filtering criteria now state that they do not "block sites on the basis of sexual preference".

As a result, SurfWatch avoided the criticism leveled at some other filtering products in the July 1996 article Keys to the Kingdom. This report was written by authors who had access to the decrypted lists of sites blocked by SurfWatch, Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter and Net Nanny. Although one of the authors later pointed out that SurfWatch blocked a domestic partners and same sex marriage information page, as well as the Health Education and Wellness program of the Columbia University, SurfWatch emerged from the article relatively unscathed.

The authors of "Keys to the Kingdom", however, only had access to the encrypted list of blocked sites stored with SurfWatch, not the total list of sites that would be blocked due to keyword filtering. Like Net Nanny, SurfWatch represents a tradeoff between excessive keyword blocking and a shorter (hence less controversial) list of blocked sites, so more pages are blocked even without being stored in the SurfWatch database. Keyword blocking also cannot be turned off in SurfWatch. (Some products like Cyber Patrol allow keyword blocking to be disabled, but even then, almost everyone agrees that the vast majority of Cyber Patrol installations are implemented with keyword filtering turned on.)

SurfWatch, like Cyber Patrol, maintains a search engine where you can enter URL's for web sites to determine whether they are blocked by the software. In accordance with SurfWatch's keyword filtering policy, the following sites are listed as being blocked in the "sexually explicit" category if you enter the URL's at the search engine:

SurfWatch issued a press release on June 26, 1997, claiming much of the credit for the Supreme Court's ruling against the Communications Decency Act. Although pundits called it a publicity stunt, the press release was subsequently linked from the Electronic Frontier Foundation homepage, sparking a deluge of criticism from other civil liberties advocates who claimed that the EFF was promoting corporate interests above the interests of individual users. The criticism leveled at the EFF on Declan McCullagh's fight-censorship mailing list was so intense that Wired News reported on the flame war a few days later. Observers say it was the first sign of a split between those who genuinely supported censorship software, and those who only used the blocking software argument as a last resort against the Communications Decency Act.

More articles in the news about SurfWatch