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Posted Sunday, December 13, 1998

September 16, 1998

State's Filtering Effort Comes Under a Critical Eye


Sometime this week, if all goes according to plan, a Utah state group will begin handing over Internet filtering records to a free speech advocate who won the right to the electronic files after an unusual appeal to the committee that handles freedom of information requests in Utah.

Michael A. Sims, a computer programmer in New York City, plans to examine the files to find out which Internet destinations students and school employees were prevented from reaching by SmartFilter, a software program used by many Utah schools to block access to online pornography and other potentially objectionable material.

Sims is a member of The Censorware Project, a volunteer group of free speech advocates who are opposed to the use of software filters by public institutions. Sims hopes to look at a month's worth of records, which will list the blocked sites students tried to visit, beginning with the start of the new school year in September.

Sims hopes that by scrutinizing the Utah records, he will find out whether large chunks of the student and teacher population in that state are using a filtering system that bans innocuous Web sites, like a page with resources about breast cancer, as well as sites that are arguably inappropriate for children.

"Is there really a need for a program like this on a school computer, and are students spending all their time looking at Playboy?" Sims asked. "Or is this filter banning a lot of useful information, like safe sex information?"

Supporters of filters, which are used by numerous schools and libraries, say the software is an effective way to protect children and others from offensive or harmful material online. Opponents counter that filtering programs are so crude that they often block access to inoffensive Web pages.

Since most filtering companies keep their lists of blocked sites a proprietary secret, critics add, taxpayers have no way of knowing what Internet material is being censored when public institutions like schools and libraries install the software.

Through a spokesman, officials at Secure Computing, the company that makes the SmartFilter program, declined comment on the matter.

Sims chose Utah as a test case because, unlike many other states, Utah offers most of its schools Internet access and related services through one group, the Utah Education Network. The network is a state-financed consortium that provides technology services to public and higher education institutions, and it uses SmartFilter to block access to five categories of information: sex, drugs, hate speech, gambling and criminal skills.

Through electronic logs, the filtering software keeps track of all Web sites users try to access but are blocked from visiting. By examining the Utah logs, Sims hopes to get an overview of Internet filtering at work in many schools at once.

When Sims first approached the Utah Education Network for the records, agency officials told him that the information in the logs was the property of the schools that subscribe to the system and, therefore, the agency could not release it.

Sims then approached the Utah State Records Committee, a seven-member group that oversees the state's Government Records Access and Management Act. In a letter to the committee, he said the Utah Education Network's argument would force the public to request documents from dozens of individual jurisdictions in the state, which includes 40 different school districts.

"Common sense, at the minimum, suggests that the UEN be the central site for matters related to these log files," he wrote.

Ultimately, the committee agreed, and in late June it voted to give Sims the records. The decision, lawyers said, was the first time they are aware of that a state body has decided to release filtering logs to an individual, after declaring the electronic documents a public record.

There have been a handful of other cases in which filtering records have been released under state freedom of information laws to groups mounting legal actions, according to a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union. Neither she nor Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, could think of an instance in which an individual had successfully fought for a declaration that filtering logs are public documents and then been granted access to the records.

Jeffery O. Johnson, a state archivist and one of the Utah State Records Committee members, said last week that it is also rare for the committee to handle requests from researchers.

But, Johnson added, the case was pretty much open and shut as far as he was concerned. Under its definition of a record, the Utah law includes "electronic data," along with such things as books, letters and documents. In addition, Johnson said, he had decided that it was a matter of public interest that more be known about how filters are working in Utah schools.

"I was convinced by Sims's argument that this could help us understand what this company [Secure Computing] was doing," he said.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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