Saturday, October 22, 2011

Amtrak & Montgomery County Censorship News Takes Off // Plus, Howard & Anne Arundel Censor Based on Politics?

Concerns About Internet Censorship Spread from Montgomery County to Amtrak and then to Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel Counties 

UPDATE: The technology and information crusaders at Techdirt have picked up on the Amtrak/MoCo censorship doubleheader!

This month, Maryland Juice readers blew the whistle on Internet censorship in Montgomery County government buildings. The story started with reports of the County (aka Chairman MoCo) blocking employees from visiting an environmental site ( That snowballed into reports of numerous pro-LGBT websites (ie: Victory Fund, Metro Weekly, Seattle Gay News, etc) and even a seniors community calendar being blocked.

The story took a turn for the strange, when I was riding an Amtrak train and tried to use their Wifi connection to verify that Montgomery County's blocked LGBT sites were not pornography. Amazingly, Amtrak apparently also decided to censor their (brand new) Internet connections from sites like Seattle Gay News and the UK newspaper, The Guardian. The doubleheader MoCo/Amtrak censorship post has quickly become the most-read post since we started Maryland Juice, drawing hundreds and hundreds of new readers this week.

We now hear that the ACLU is poking around at Chairman MoCo's practices, and the media is spreading the word about the defective web filters used by Montgomery County and Amtrak. Additionally, numerous young LGBT voices in Montgomery are suddenly contacting Maryland Juice about the need for more local organizing to defend the community. Details soon!

In the meantime, here is a quick round-up of the news coverage, starting with a TV clip from WJLA (ABC 7):

Before the news round-up below, Maryland Juice wanted to highlight the following fascinating email response from a Professor at the University of Maryland:
Juice, I see your note about the costs spent in MoCo to censor (they would say "filter") traffic on county sites. The reaction to that by some might be "duh, so where have you been?"  :-)

See if you can find what the county school systems spend on this, for example - I'm betting way way more than that, and with even more conflicting results. Here is why we suspect this ...

I teach a course at UM on privacy (e.g. recent offering at ) and a class project done by one of my students was to examine web filtering done at various high schools. A (small) sampling of schools in each of Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's was identified and she went to computers at each to try surfing to a list of web sites chosen to span various social issue sites (e.g. NRA and gun control groups, pro-life and family service sites, and so on.)

Interesting results. Howard let through the stereotypically left-leaning sites, but blocked pro-gun, pro-life, etc traffic. Anne Arundel was almost a mirror image reverse. PG did the least overall censoring but ultimately blocked traffic on the right for a few core issue areas. The schools gave no comment on results, refused to identify for the most part what companies or services they used for this and on background asserted they gave no instructions to any company (whatever they were) on which way to go. Obviously this was not really the case. The dynamics and gamesmanship of Public Information Act requests being what it is, there was no time to get a response on this by official channels before the semester was over. So they successfully censored the censorship information.

Inquiring minds might want to know those companies, what directions or selections were given to them and how much was paid. I'm betting it is way way more than what you identified for county administration hosts.

Jim Purtilo

The problem of control over information on the Internet has grown larger over time -- witness, for example Wikileaks, Google's battles with Chinese censors, North African governments unplugging the Internet, and of course, the proliferation of mindless filtering in America, etc. This is an exceedingly complicated area of policy, and increasingly Maryland Juice is aware that decisions are being made by people who know little about the Net and care little about how it evolves. It's a slippery slope folks, and there is a reason governments are trying to hide their filtering rules.  You will not be pleased when you see how the sausage is made.

I suspect they'll claim all sorts of things -- ie: their workers are lazy and spend too much time on Facebook (see the last paragraph of this article), or they are watching porn at work, etc -- but none of those distracting claims has to do with Chairman MoCo's inability to guarantee content-neutral filtering (or anything even close to it). They are also claiming it wasn't their intent to censor LGBT news sites, but I'm not sure the intent matters, does it? Accidental discrimination is still discrimination. Oops!

Here's the Maryland Juice news round-up of Chairman MoCo & Amtrak's censorship programs:

Thanks for the lift from our friends in the media and blogosphere!

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