A blog about a possible internet filtering solution for libraries

Library Internet Filtering

Frankly, I think the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Children's Internet Protection Act case was wrong.
It is virtually always wrong to censor information, especially in a library. But that is how the law in the United States stands at the moment and if a library accepts federal funding it must install internet filtering technology on all of its internet enabled computers.

This website is about a particular internet filtering product IF 2K and its application to libraries.

This product is flexible, publishes its block list, is reasonably priced and it can be configured to meet library's particular requirements.

It is not a perfect solution but it is inexpensive and, with librarians' input, the least obnoxious filtering solution on the market.

Jay Currie

Friday, October 31, 2003

Hack Away

Lead by filtering critic Seth Finkelstein anti-filtering advocates have won a significant victory for transparency in filtering. The copyright office has granted an exemption from the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for people seeking to decrypt the block lists of filtering companies. The filtering companies wanted to continue to be able to keep their block lists secret and to be able to use the Courts to prevent anyone from trying to hack the lists. They maintained that the system where you can type in a URL and see if it is on the block list was sufficient.

The Copyright Office disagreed:
Opponents argued that circumvention is not necessary because other alternative sources for the information sought to be obtained are
available, but the proponents of the exemption successfully discredited this assertion. While it is true that limited "querying" of the databases is available on some of the filtering software
companies' sites, the circumscribed nature of this querying foreclosed comprehensive or meaningful results. Opponents produced evidence that many reviews of filtering software platforms reached conclusions based on these querying capabilities or by utilizing various sampling techniques, yet this evidence only proved that some parties were willing to settle for the results produced by such superficial tests. In light of the millions (or more) of potential URLs, it is indisputable that actually viewing the entire list of blocked Internet loccidentalocations will produce data much more comprehensive than querying about one hundred URLs.
copyright office pdf

One of the things which I have been writing about at this website is that it is impossible to evaluate a filtering program if you do not have access to the list of URLs it blocks. The ruling of the Copyright Office is great news and Seth and the other people who have been waging a lonely fight to keep the exemption have done a tremendous service for intellectual freedom and, thought they probably will not like this, responsible internet filtering, have done a huge service.

However, all this ruling means is that if you have the computer skills necessary there is nothing illegal about trying to decrypt a filtering companies list in order to find out what the company is blocking. Good luck to you.

Of course, and here's the plug, you could use IF2K and have complete access to the list without encryption.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Hole in the Apple

Is this intentional?
The company chose a system called FairPlay. Instead of offering music in the standard MP3 format, all files are encoded in an alternative format called AAC. Outside of Apple's own iPod music players, few portable devices can play AAC files. In addition, each file has built-in software to limit a purchaser's replay rights. You can only listen to your tunes on up to three computers. Install the files on a fourth, and they won't play.

With all these restrictions, why are so many people happy to buy from iTunes? Because there's a loophole as big as Boston Harbor.

At the push of a button, you can burn all of your iTunes onto a CD, in the standard CD audio format. This disk will play in any standard CD player or computer. More important, you can rip it into MP3 files, just as you would with a store-bought CD. Apple says that doing so results in lousy sound quality, but we've tried it, and the results sound just fine -- certainly good enough for casual listening.
boston globe
The logic being to wean people away from illegal downloading. Its an excellent article for people interested in what will happen next with the RIAA.

Filter Information

Lori Bowen Ayre, a consultant at The Galecia Group is putting together a survey of internet filtering products suitable for libraries. Five companies up so far. You can see pricing, shutoff options and pricing here. No word on the ALA's own efforts in this area. While the press release from the ALA President suggested that there would be an effort undertaken, it is not clear what, if any progress has been made on an ALA evaluation.

Lori's initiative could easily become the default source for libraries looking for up to date, objective advice and information on filtering products - hey, maybe the ALA should buy the right to disseminate Lori's results.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Woe Canada, Heathcare?

Over at Tech Central Station Sally Pipes is beginning a four part series on Canadian Health Care. Unsurprisingly, she is not impressed.
The median waiting time in Canada from referral by a general practitioner to treatment was 16.5 weeks in 2002 -- up 77 percent from 1993. For cancer patients, waiting times for medical oncology have increased from 2.5 weeks to 5.5 weeks and for radiation oncology from 6.3 weeks to 10 weeks. In the United States, the waiting time is a week, and that long only because of the need to deal with paperwork.
It is a real issue and one which bedevils the entire Canadian political system. I'm going to be reading carefully with two questions in mind: first, how does Pipes handle the question of America's uninsured? Canadian wait times are horrific in some cases; but if you go to Emergency you get treatment with no questions about your ability to pay. Second, are the problems in the Canadian system intrinsic to that system or are they issues which can be fixed within that system?
As far as prescription drugs are concerned, you can ask the patients who recently took advantage of a bus trip to Maine organized by Consumer Advocare Network and Dr. Tony Lordon of St. Johns, New Brunswick what Canadian price controls have meant to them. Provincial health ministries in effect denied them the treatments their doctors say they need for diabetes, cholesterol, and depression. They were forced to travel to Maine to get them. Other Canadians have waited years for new medicines readily available in the United States to combat such debilitating illnesses as rheumatoid arthritis and hepatitis C because of the way Canada tries to control drug prices.
This is a good example of a problem which can and should be fixed within the system.

On a personal note, Susan and I are expecting a baby in the next three weeks. Blogging may be light. But, poor as we are, we have the assurance that come the day Susan will have outstanding care from skilled midwives with full obstetrical backup with no fees payable. Which, frankly, I want to preserve for every Canadian.

Spidey Sense

One of the most important features of a library filtering system is the ability to add white lists. A white list is a list of websites or URLs which is not to be blocked. White lists allow libraries to ensure that they have control over the filters they install.

One way of compiling white lists is to simply take a book mark file and add all the sites it contains. This is efficient and means that a librarian's work creating resources for a particular topic can be easily integrated into an internet filter which allows white lists. Similarly, it is quite easy to make a white list using third party resources such as the Kaiser Filter study's list of 100,000 health sites.

However, the next step is the creation and sharing of specific topic white lists. While these can be compiled by hand, a better alternative exists: the spider. A spider is a little bit of code which follows hyperlinks around the web and stores the URLs it finds. Set a spider on a single website from a Google search and it will follow all of the links from that site out onto the internet.

Using a spider a librarian can compile a list of sites on a given topic in a matter of minutes. Depending upon how the spider is set, this sort of raw list can include hundreds, sometimes thousands, of sites. This raw list is the beginning of a topic white list.

Spidering strategies often include multiple passes and beginning the spider at different websites; but the goal is the same, to build a comprehensive raw list of topic related sites.

It is vital to remember that spiders are remarkably dumb animals. They go after every link. So a raw list has to be edited. But the editing process is a fairly straightforward process of eliminating duplicates and irrelevant sites. Once this pruning has been done a spidered list becomes a number of different things.

First, it is a resource in itself for a library. A library can direct its users to a webpage or pages where lists or useful websites are grouped by category.

Second, it is potentially a resource for all libraries as these lists can easily be shared and posted to a central location (perhaps the ALA.)

Third, by adding these hand edited white lists to filtering programs able to accept whitelists, a library ensures that its filtering becomes more an more accurate. Filtering programs are not perfect. At best they can be "trained" to make fewer and fewer mistakes over time.

Spiders came up recently as we were looking for ways to enhance our web filter for the library market. For obvious reasons, spiders are one of the tools in a filtering company's kit. IF2K built its own so it can offer the spider as part of its filter. The question is, would libraries want to have this tool in their kit?

Likely it will be included in any event, but feed back would be appreciated.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Neil Postman
There are very few cultural critics who I would cross the street to see; but when Neil Postman came to Vancouver a couple of years ago I spent much of a week listening to Postman say things which were remarkably obvious - once he had said them.
He drew national attention with "The Disappearance of Childhood" (Delacorte, 1982), in which he asserted that television conflated what should be the separate worlds of children and adults. It did so, he contended, by steeping the minds of children in vast amounts of information once reserved for their elders and subjecting them to all the desires and conflicts of the adult world.
link et seq. new york times
This was, in itself, enough to make Postman a bit of a hero in my books. We now have a term for the effects Postman was warning about: age compression. It is the phenomena which creates the delights of "kinderwhore" dressing for girls and "mook" existence for teenage boys. But Postman was just getting started. His book, Amusing Ourselves to Death is the most scathing survey of the dumb culture promoted by television I have ever read. At one point I could quote sections from memory. No longer and I don't have a copy out of a box; but one of Postman's central insights is that there are no prerequisites in TV land. Every show begins with the premise that its viewers know nothing at all. Which is the exact opposite of the way that knowledge is patiently accumulated over time.
Dr. Postman was particularly offended by the presentation of television news with all the trappings of entertainment programming, including theme music and "talking hairdos." Only in the printed word, he felt, could complicated truths be rationally conveyed.
The end of political and social discourse was heralded, according to Postman, by sound bites and happy chat in place of actual news. similarly, the need for entertainment meant that the idea of analysis was replaced with "How do you feel?" questions.

Listening to Postman, reading Postman, I heard a voice steeped in a tradition of rigorous, iconoclastic thinking who was baffled and angered by the elevation of idiocy which passed for big media in the United States and, eventually, throughout the world. He was, as many of his generation are, ambivalent about computers and the internet. As he put it in the huge Baptist Church where he was lecturing, the problem of the internet and the PC was that it could not be "uninvented" and whatever its consequences we were stuck with them. It was not so much that he was against the technology; rather he noticed that we had arrived in the computer age without the slightest discussion or debate as to whether we should be there at all. The technology made the decision for us. For Postman, a humanist to his fingertips, the idea of technology ruling man rather than its opposite was suspicious at best, anathema at worst.
(crossposted from jaycurrie.com)

Neal Stephenson: Ouicksilver on Paper

Neal Stephenson is interviewed by Glen Reynolds over at Tech Central Station. REad the whole thing and all that. I liked Stephenson's remarks on paper,
Paper's a really advanced technology. That was brought home to me by working on this, when I read a lot of documents from that era, which were put down on really good, acid-free paper. They're all pretty much as good as they were the day they were made 300 or 350 years ago. This is not going to be true of today's electronic media in 300 years. There's a lesson there.
tech central station
Coming from the guy who wrote Cryptomonicon this is a pretty interesting take on the real values in technology. (cross posted from jaycurrie.com)

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The need for Transparency

Seth Finkelstein, being a bit Eeyorish about blogging in general, mentions an interesting point in the ongoing discussion about why it is critical that any organization concerned about intellectual freedom must demand access to a filtering company's blacklists,
When I first circumvented the encryption of N2H2's blacklist, I was amazed at how much of it was junk and duplications and obvious errors. Just full of garbage. Logically, what do they care? Who is looking?! They have an incentive to add as much as possible, for PR puffery (a blacklist zillions long). It was very evident that there were silly keywords being used to blacklist sites.

I wanted to publish these results to coincide with the District Court CIPA trial. But during the expert-witness testimony of the trial, N2H2 went into court with extraordinary legal aggressiveness, to attempt to prevent the court experts from testifying in public about its blacklist (on "trade secret" grounds):

"They say that certain things we talk about them having blocked will show the nature of their software, ..."
Seth Finkelstein
In order to make a responsible evaluation of a filtering product a library or library board must know what, is being filtered. While there is not a perfect solution to filtering, judging the less than perfect without access to the blacklists is largely a waste of time.


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