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Censorship The Internet

Some Sites That Blue Coat Blocks Under "Pornography" 119

Posted by timothy
from the say-what's-under-that-blue-coat? dept.
Bennett Haselton writes this week with a dissection of the effects of one well-known, long-known problem with so-called Internet filters. "The New Braunfels Republican Women, the Weston Community Children's Association, and the Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario are among the sites categorized as 'pornography' by Blue Coat, a California-based Internet blocking software company. While the product may not be much worse than other Internet filtering programs in that regard, it reinforces the point that miscategorization of sites as 'pornographic' is a routine occurrence in the industry, and not just limited to a handful of broken products." Read on below for the rest.

On Monday I released a blog post through the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, listing some of the sites that we had found to be blocked by Blue Coat's Internet filtering program. Previously we had released a similar report on sites that were miscategorized as "pornography" by Smartfilter. We ran some of the same URL lists through both programs, and found that some unfortunate sites were even blocked as "pornography" by both products, including Barenboim-Said (a youth orchestra featuring musicians from Israel, Palestine, and different Arab nations), and the aforementioned New Braunfels Republican Women.

The full list of sites we said were "miscategorized" is at the end of the Citizen Lab blog post. As far as I know we didn't miss any porn hidden on any of the sites that were in the list. The closest we came was a photo on performancespace.org/ showing what appears to be a model taking one for the team by lying on the floor of a grungy art exhibit. There was also the other borderline case of http://safe-sex.org/, which does include articles on topics like "Safe Sex with Expensive London Escorts." But Blue Coat's own working definition of 'pornography' defines it as "Sites that contain sexually explicit material for the purpose of arousing a sexual or prurient interest," and the articles on Safe-Sex.org do not appear intended to arouse ("The heartwarming fact about having safe sex with expensive London escorts is that they usually present a clean bill of health to clients."), so it gets counted as a miscategorization. The overwhelming majority of miscategorized sites were completely G-rated fare like the Kiddie Kollege Nursery School (which, by the way, would probably have grounds for a lawsuit against Blue Coat, if parents trying to access their website were greeted with a message that it had been blocked for containing "pornography").

Anyone can play the parlor game of examining blocked websites looking for signs of what caused them to be blocked. Is the website of the New Braunfels Republican Women blocked by both Blue Coat and Smartfilter because it has the word "women" in the title? (Tempting to thing so, but unlikely, since there are so many other sites with "women" in the name which were not blocked by either product.) One of the blocked websites, http://www.foundations4betterliving.org/, until recently contained statistics such as "A growing variety of sexual behaviour is being practiced by teens 15- to 19-year-old... 53% admit to masturbating; 49% have participated in oral sex; 11% have had anal sex," all of which you could read on their front page while Bette Midler's 'From A Distance' auto-played in the background. (I was hoping to introduce you to that sublime experience, but unfortunately the domain apparently expired right after the report was published. When you list 150 domain names in a report, that's bound to happen with some of them.) And there's neobit.org/, the homepage of a manufacturer of emulators for dongles. While many Americans probably heard the term for the first time when Amy Poehler asked the Best Buy salesman "Can I use a dongle with this? Does it make you uncomfortable when I use the word 'dongle'?", the eggheads at Blue Coat should know what a dongle actually is. 'Dongle' has never been generally accepted anatomical slang, one rogue entry at the Urban Dictionary notwithstanding.

On the other hand, most websites in the report are not only not pornographic, they don't even seem to contain any content that could have triggered an accidental block. So it's quite possible that Blue Coat simply blocks a certain number of sites as a result of some pseudo-random process, and just by chance, some of those sites happen to contain content which looks like it might have caused the block, but the content actually had nothing to do with it.

Still, that leaves open the question of why so many sites turned up blocked by both Blue Coat and Smartfilter. Out of about 150 sites miscategorized by Smartfilter and about 150 sites miscategorized by Blue Coat, 8 sites showed up on both lists, or about 6%. (That group of 8 is listed in the middle of the blog post, beginning with balticsail.org.) Now if either Smartfilter or Blue Coat were blocking non-pornographic sites completely at random, then the percentage of overlap should be about the same as the percentage of non-pornographic sites that the product blocks generally. (For example: Suppose Blue Coat blocked 1% of non-pornographic sites completely at random. Out of 150 non-pornographic sites blocked by Smartfilter, we would therefore expect 1% of them -- about 1 or 2 sites -- to also be blocked by Blue Coat.) But despite the huge number of errors made by both products, neither of them comes close to blocking 6% of all non-pornographic websites as "pornography"; the percentage of overlap is much higher than we would expect if the blocking were random.

So this suggests that some factor is at work that caused the 8 sites in that list to be more likely than average to be blocked, such that they ended up blocked by both products. Did any of the domain names used to be registered to a porn site? It seems hard to imagine that balticsail.org or barenboimsaidusa.org/ could have ever been in demand as domain names used to advertise porn. moriah.org/ sounds like it possibly could have been (many domain names consisting solely of female first names are registered to porn sites), but according to the Wayback Machine, the a previous owner was a Christian band, before the domain expired and was bought by its present-day owner, a Jewish boarding school. Perhaps the IP addresses of these sites used to be held by porn companies, but then why would the products block the sites by their domain name as well? So I really don't know.

The good news is that, unlike Smartfilter, at least Blue Coat's blacklist doesn't appear to be used by any countries for nationwide Internet censorship. Citizen Lab had previously discovered installations of Blue Coat Internet blocking software in 19 "countries of interest" with poor human rights records, but none of them appeared to be set up to filter Internet traffic in and out of the country. In the one country where the product was being used for statewide Internet filtering, the United Arab Emirates, the Blue Coat software was being used in conjunction with Smartfilter's blacklist, so the sites that are mis-blocked by Blue Coat are not blocked in that country (unless of course they also happen to be mis-blocked by Smartfilter).

For the time being, it is not against U.S. law for a company to sell Internet censoring software to foreign governments, even with the knowledge that the tools are being used to restrict freedom of speech in a manner that would be considered a human rights violation by international standards, so both companies have made it a core part of their business.

What a bunch of dongles.

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Some Sites That Blue Coat Blocks Under "Pornography"

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Dildo Double Penetration Anal Blowjob Breasts Anus Penis Ass Tits

    And yes, that IS on-topic!

    • by noh8rz10 (2716597)

      TFS:

      Is the website of the New Braunfels Republican Women blocked by both Blue Coat and Smartfilter because it has the word "women" in the title?

      Braunfels sounds like brothels?

      • Maybe they added picture scanning technology and the New Braunfels Republican Women are simply hawt.
        • by boristdog (133725)

          Well...
          New Braunfels IS a popular destination for Comal and Guadalupe river riders, many of whom are college-age females wearig skimpy bathing suits.
          New Braunfels is also home of Schlitterbahn, usually voted the worlds best water park and therefore also often full of nubile women in skimpy bathing suits.

          So during the warm months there are many hot women in New Braunfels. However, I would wager that few if any of these hot women are registered republicans.

          But if you want to look at hot women in skimpy bathi

      • No no no. The filter got it right! Those New Braunfels Republican Women are SKANKS!!!
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        No, because it has 'Republican'. That's as close to porn as it can be.

  • Exploited sites? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kaenneth (82978) on Friday March 21, 2014 @01:07PM (#46544703) Homepage Journal

    Perhaps one or more of these sites were running expoitable software, and were hijacked to serve porn without their owners knowledge.

    I know of at least one federal agency that had a poorly secured FTP server loaded with child porn back in to 90's

    • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

      by east coast (590680)
      You sure the FTP site was hijacked? That sounds like business as usual coming from the government.
      • by Mashiki (184564)

        Very possible. Back when I was interested in the scene(aka warez in the mid 90's), and was following a lot of the underground news there was always some government ftp server somewhere that wasn't compromised but "opened" to allow access by someone. My theory on it was, it wasn't a honey pot but someone on the inside serving to select people, and serving to friends on the inside. Whether it still holds true today, I have no idea.

    • by jythie (914043)
      More likely they have some type of bayesian filter style process that categorizes sites based off reasons it does not have the capability of explaining. It could be something as simple as some headline or piece a site linked to had just the wrong words in it.
    • "Perhaps one or more of these sites were running expoitable software, and were hijacked to serve porn without their owners knowledge."

      Possibly, but most likely not.

      When you automate filters, they make mistakes. Period.

      When you put filters in the hands of government, they also make "mistakes", but how many of those mistakes are intentional is anybody's guess... though some of the sites blocked by UK filters have been rather telling.

    • by PRMan (959735)

      Blue Coat makes the free K9 software which I used to use when my kids were younger. They allowed the end-users to flag any site as a violation of any category. I'm not sure how much checking they did, but I would imagine if 10-12 people called the same site the same thing they would probably block it.

      Also, any user can request that a certain site should NOT be blocked as a certain category, as it is unlikely to apply. Again, hard to tell how long or how many users until it took effect.

      • One of the example sites is a political site. The other represents people from a politically contested region. Both subjects that might well attract some activists trying to manipulate classifications to smear the reputation of their political opposites. It's a good theory, but it can't explain all of the misblocks. It's likely there are actually several different causes going on at once.

      • by tattood (855883)
        This is true. Their website is https://sitereview.bluecoat.co... [bluecoat.com].

        Sometimes automated systems make mistakes, and when they do, they are corrected. Get over it and stop whining.

        And by the way, all of the sites mentioned have been fixed.

        The New Braunfels Republican Women (www.nbrw.com) > Political/Social Advocacy
        Weston Community Children's Association (www.wccakids.org) > Charitable Organizations
        Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario (www.clubrunner.ca) > Charitable Organizations
        • Blaming it on a automated system is plain wrong. If you end up on the wrong end of a automated system, you find out that it might be very hard to get of some blacklist.

          -Procedure to get off/ timeframe is NOT documented. (someone will look at it sometime),
          -The procedure to get you on the list is made by humans. Setting criteria too strict and BOOM..
          -if filtering software get too strict porn people will try to fight this.: (combining a political site with some hidden porn links, ask the child porn people e

    • by sputnikid (191152)

      I knew of this happening on a number of occasions for sites when I was working with Blue Coat hardware.

      Often the main page was hacked and filled with hidden porn links and meta data to feed search engines.

    • Perhaps one or more of these sites were running expoitable software, and were hijacked to serve porn without their owners knowledge.

      I know of at least one federal agency that had a poorly secured FTP server loaded with child porn back in to 90's

      Perhaps, but most of these devices have a separate category for that (so you can run a report and quantify just how much "more secure" you are than if you'd stayed with your old product.)

  • It reinforces that it's a slow news day at Slashdot.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 21, 2014 @01:16PM (#46544789)

    For the time being, it is not against U.S. law for a company to sell Internet censoring software to foreign governments, even with the knowledge that the tools are being used to restrict freedom of speech in a manner that would be considered a human rights violation by international standards, so both companies have made it a core part of their business.

    It's against the law for the United States to censor its citizens. It's not against the law for citizens to self-censor, or to censor others in a private capacity. From my perspective, helping Saudia Arabia censor its citizens is not tantamount to the United States violating free speech of its own citizens. Stop trying to turn the first amendment into some kind of mandate that the U.S. do anything other that limit is own power so it never infringes upon its own citizens right to free speech

    • by LordLimecat (1103839) on Friday March 21, 2014 @01:45PM (#46545017)

      This is a distinction lost on Bennett, who ironically screams bloody murder about private companies "violating" the first amendment while recommending that we gut the 5th.

      Somehow one gets the impression that Bennett doesnt actually get WHY we have the bill of rights and what the threat model is.

      Bennett, if it seems like I have a bit of a grudge against you in most of the posts you drop, its because you seem to utterly lack perspective in these things and miss the bigger picture. Companies need to monitor and filter THEIR networks for legal and HR reasons. The government is a whole different animal, and we have protections in place to keep them from becoming tyrants. Thats the disconnect that you seem to keep missing.

      Maybe when BlueCoat is required by a piece of legislation Ill hop aboard the "tar and feather BlueCoat Labs" bandwagon, but until then I see the service they provide as valuable.

      • I'd argue that the government is a "whole different animal" about as much as mules are a whole different animal from horses. The same arguments against government censorship hold true for corporate censorship. An idea should survive or die based on it's merits, not because someone with power dislikes it and wants it to die. That's true no matter if the power is in the form of an army, the police, another branch of the government, or if it's in the form of corporate lawsuits, products, lobbying, bribery,
        • by LordLimecat (1103839) on Friday March 21, 2014 @06:05PM (#46547113)

          I'd argue that the government is a "whole different animal" about as much as mules are a whole different animal from horses. The same arguments against government censorship hold true for corporate censorship

          No, they dont, for the following reasons:

          • 1) Its NOT YOUR PROPERTY. The company is providing you with bandwith, keyboards, mice, chairs, office space, and computers, and it is THEIR prerogative to decide how and under what circumstances they may be used. If you dont like it or feel oppressed, exercise your rights at home: noone can stop you from doing so.
          • 2) They are sometimes LEGALLY REQUIRED to do so. If they host data protected by HIPAA or SOXley or protected by export restrictions, they can be raked over the coals for failing to police their network. If someone prints porn out on the network printer and some woman gets offended, she could potentially sue the company for sexual harassment if they cannot show that theyre taking due diligence to prevent such things.
          • 3) They are often TECHNICALLY required to do so. Dont monitor your outbound email, and one day youll find yourself on DNSRBL or SpamHaus. Have fun dealing with that and getting delisted without implementing "censorship" of some kind. Also have fun preventing virus outbreaks on the network without both filtering and monitoring what goes on there.
          • 4) You can leave your company, your company can dissolve, and it has no jurisdiction over what you do at home. You cannot "opt out" of the US Government, it doesnt go away, and it has the power to enforce laws regardless of where you go. Thus, it makes a lot more sense to worry about what the Government decides are "the rules" than what your company does in its own little corner of the playground.
          • 5) You almost always explicitly agree to such "censorship" in a voluntary contract with your employer. Dont like it, dont agree to the acceptable use policy and find a different employer.

          The two look alike only at the most shallow and irrelevant levels.

          • You cannot "opt out" of the US Government, it doesnt go away, and it has the power to enforce laws regardless of where you go.

            But we have, should we ever decide to use it, the power of the vote. We can't opt out, but we can change it.

            The thing you don't understand is that we let big money stuff the ballot box, so we elect servants to the companies, who make regulations so obnoxious as to keep out any upstart competition. We actually have more control over the government than we do over private business. The

      • by bennetthaselton (1016233) on Saturday March 22, 2014 @05:24AM (#46549995)
        (1) As I just said to an Anonymous Coward, U.S. companies helping foreign governments to censor their citizens may not be prohibited under the Bill of Rights, but that doesn't make it right. (2) In my article about the 5th Amendment, I said multiple times that the question was whether you could describe a scenario that had a better outcome with the 5th Amendment than without it, if you hold all other assumptions constant. If you haven't described a scenario then you haven't answered the question. (And I listed several scenarios in the article that were not valid answers, and why.)
      • This is a distinction lost on Bennett

        Along with many other things.

    • by bennetthaselton (1016233) on Saturday March 22, 2014 @05:16AM (#46549971)

      For the time being, it is not against U.S. law for a company to sell Internet censoring software to foreign governments, even with the knowledge that the tools are being used to restrict freedom of speech in a manner that would be considered a human rights violation by international standards, so both companies have made it a core part of their business.

      It's against the law for the United States to censor its citizens. It's not against the law for citizens to self-censor, or to censor others in a private capacity. From my perspective, helping Saudia Arabia censor its citizens is not tantamount to the United States violating free speech of its own citizens.

      Well obviously, the U.S. government permitting American companies to aid foreign governments in censoring their own citizens, is not the same thing as the U.S. government censoring its own citizens -- but that doesn't make it right.

      Saying that Bad Thing 1 is not the same as Bad Thing 2, doesn't make Bad Thing 1 into a good thing.

  • by redelm (54142) on Friday March 21, 2014 @01:18PM (#46544807) Homepage

    Look, in any filtering system there are going to be false positives and false negatives. Perhaps more with active systems because the true negatives have an incentive to get by, and so will adjust. (A certain actress and warm cereal is a /. example) The filterers will then have to clamp down, increasing false positives.

    The whole thing has a whiff of Bruce Schneier's "security Theatre". Everyone serious knows it does not work, but it gives political cover of be able to claim an effort. Saving face at a price paid by other people. I try to avoid such predators.

    • by PRMan (959735)
      Actually, K9 (the free version of Blue Coat) worked REMARKABLY well in my experience. In my 5 years of using it at home when my kids were younger, I only ran into a handful of unblocked sites and only 2 false positives.
      • by redelm (54142)
        ... that you know of!

        BlueCoat may be the best of a bad breed, but that just encourages complacency. Far better to choose less-insecure software (anything-but-IE) and instill some security consciousness into users. Filters might have a "training-wheels" place for learners, but reliance is dangerous.

        • by lgw (121541)

          There's really no difference in the security of browsers these days - it's all about the plug-ins.

          And what does any of that have to do with wanting a porn-blocking filter for your kids?

          • by cbhacking (979169)

            Nothing much... but anybody who thinks kids need (or even will benefit from) porn blocking has their head shoved so far up their puritan ass they could offer a whole new camera angle for porn if they wore Google Glass. Most kids learn (a flawed version of) what sex is long before they're old enough for it themselves. Some of them develop weird ideas about it, but those ideas near-universally come down to "ew, gross!" and stay that way until they get old enough for hormones to kick in. At that point, a porn

            • by lgw (121541)

              Sure, that's one opinion. But that doesn't mean there's no place for such a product for people with a their own opinion about how to raise their kids.

              • Do you really think ignorance is preferable to education when it comes to "kids" learning (and they will, one way or another) about sex?
                How can we expect young people to make wise choices regarding sex when we hide it from them, depriving them of the information they'll need to make a intelligent, informed decisions when the time comes? For the kids' sake, teach them reality before the world smacks them in the face with it!
                • by lgw (121541)

                  Sure, that's one opinion. But that doesn't mean there's no place for such a product for people with a their own opinion about how to raise their kids.

                  • There are many opinions [theflatearthsociety.org] and many products [stupid.com] out there, and very many of them could be classified as unwise to partake of because there is much better to be had. Championing less knowledge for people about to make potentially life altering decisions is a viewpoint that makes no sense to me. Be that as it may, as you say there's a place for just about everyone [earth-invaded.com]. I wish only the best for you, your children, and your many grandchildren.
                    • by lgw (121541)

                      You seem very intent on imposing your ideas about how to raise children on other people families. Seems a bit intellectually arrogant to me.

                    • LOL! In what way have I "imposed" my ideas on anyone? Near as I can tell, I've expressed my personal opinion that education is preferable to unilaterally imposed ignorance. I do feel strongly about this and if you don't like that, it's not my problem or concern. Your response above is a clear straw man [wikipedia.org] followed by an inaccurate observation of the straw man you created. Seems a bit sorry to me really, so I think I'm done with this thread.
  • Have you fully checked out the New Braunfels Republican Women website? Republicans like porn too, and Republican porn....
  • Blue Coat is mostly optional. What Google is doing is far worse, with Blue Coat you know that the censored websites exists and are blocked. Googles censorship of sites with content they don't think you should know is something you don't notice: It just looks like those sites don't exist.
    • by PRMan (959735)
      Google's not doing it. The MAFIAA and the government are MAKING Google do it.
      • by lgw (121541)

        Google Image Search will auto-block-and-report anything matching the FBI CP database. Great idea in principle. But now the FBI has the ability to auto-block-and-report any image they want to. Ripe for abuse.

  • If he had the mind-numbing and soul-crushing job of checking sites for porn, a low-paid employee might find it easier to just type the URL into SmartFilter's check page, and copy what he found there. That would explain the more-than-chance overlap of mistakenly blocked sites.
  • ... that the photos from the annual awards banquet and the monthly meeting minutes from the Rotary Club could be NSFW?

    Years ago, the web site for a local IT group -- who'd nominated our CIO for an industry award -- was being blocked by the corporate web filters that were marking it as "tasteless".

    Why do these vendors even try if they're going to fail so spectacularly?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Yeah, and good luck getting your site removed from one of their lists, once you're added. Unless you're a big enough name to warrant special attention, your site will just get tossed back into the queue to be automatically categorized, resulting in the same or similar categorization. Never will you be allowed to speak with a real person to get whitelisted as a workaround to their algorithms being complete BS.

  • A few years back one company's software identified my site under "Illegal: Gambling." Since it's a movie site, that was way off. I contacted the company and explained the situation to them. After a short exchange with 2 of their techs, they removed the tag from my site in their system.

    Any filtering software needs a system for site owners to submit trouble tickets, and also employees, who can think independently, to review them and make corrections.

  • Typically products use URL filtering and search filtering - very challenging and full of false positives (and false negatives). The newest trend seems to be actual content filtering, where the page is pre-loaded on the filter, analyzed, and allowed through if OK, blocked if not. It seems to greatly increase the correct response of the filter to the pages in question. I only know of a couple of companies who are offering this now, but I definitely see it as where things are headed.

  • Doesn't seem like anyone has mentioned the obvious, spurious reporting for nefarious reasons. If any of these sites (like YouTube and others do) rely on people reporting porn sites to them, it's open for rife neglect.
  • There are a number of assumptions being made about all of this.

    First, it's assuming one is using BlueCoat to begin with.

    Second, it's assuming that the users of BlueCoat products are using some of BlueCoat's subscription services to ease management of those devices.

    Third, it's assuming that the users of BlueCoat products are not modifying the filters by hand.

    I've had some hands-on experience with BlueCoat products in the past, particularly the web-filtering/proxy devices described here, and our organization

  • They've got it going ON at the Rotary Club.

  • Several items to question here. Where did these lists come from? Did the author manually track down sites to find out which ones were specifically miscategorized by the specific vendors? Seems pretty unfair if you're only going to target two vendors instead of taking this ENTIRE list (the one used for Smartfilter and the one used for Blue Coat) and test them against ALL major vendors in this market space and report on that. Otherwise, he's just trying to create anger around two specific vendors (probabl
  • by Jim Sadler (3430529) on Friday March 21, 2014 @03:49PM (#46546155)
    If someone blocks a site wrongly due to thinking it is pornographic can't they be sued? Why is it that businesses are treated differently than people? I am quite certain that if i blocked a site like a local college that I would face all kinds of legal issues and might even do prison time. So what about the people that supply and use this blocking software?
    • by genpip (3587205)
      As long as they don't correct it, then MAYBE! Again though, companies like Blue Coat who are arguably the market leaders in things like content filtering, wouldn't be there if they were arbitrarily blocking these sites without correcting wrong ones. Just a thought.
  • We're blocked everywhere despite no pornographic content.

    Somehow, web filter drones find it hard to believe that the "American Nihilist Underground Society (ANUS)" not only chose the domain deliberately, but has been around for 20+ years.

  • by Phreakiture (547094) on Friday March 21, 2014 @04:20PM (#46546463) Homepage

    Bluecoat don't vet every site. They vet what they can, and let bayesian classifiers do the rest.

    That said, when you find a mistake, you can submit it to them and they will look into it. I have had a 100% success rate getting them to adjust the classification of sites I've submitted to them over the last six or seven years.

  • Quick, the cyborgs are hot on my tail -- when am I? Did I make it back to 2023? Or is it 2003? Let's see... Bennet Haselton is criticizing internet filtering... Dammit, that doesn't narrow the range in the slightest!

  • Regarding whatever software / process created the filter lists for these programs: With huge numbers of sites being infected with some form of malware on a regular basis I'm wondering if it is possible that these sites when scanned did re-direct the scanner to an elicit site. There is also conditional malware that is often very difficult to detect that shows different things to different people. Perhaps it could be as simple as the malware injected adult banner ads that the filter saw and flagged the site

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