Tuesday, October 11, 2011

FU: Montgomery County Censors Net with Dumb Robots // Plus, Will Senators Cardin & Mikulski Help Fight Patriot Act Abuse?

Ironic title, no?
Earlier today, Maryland Juice published an article about residents' views on transportation funding. In it, we linked to an amusing website (FUH2.com) about gas-guzzling H2 SUV's.

After sending the article out, I received the following message from a Montgomery County government employee: "I clicked the link to FUH2.com and Montgomery County blocked it, said it was porn."  

Excuse me? Maryland Juice does not link to porn. I asked this source to email me a screencap of the censorship:

Just to be clear, Montgomery County's workplace censorship robot is either dumb or a liar. The website that MoCo claims is porn merely contains information about why H2 SUV's are bad for the environment, along with a photo catalog of (fully-clothed) people "flipping the bird" at these SUV's. This is clearly protected political speech and directly related to a legitimate policy discussion -- not pornography.

So why is this happening? Internet filters are notoriously unreliable and often censor perfectly innocent sites. My suspicion is that Montgomery County is using a really stupid censorship service that thinks a website about Hŭmmer-brand SUV's is a website about "hŭmmers." <-- I had to add accents above the letter "u" in the prior sentence, so that this article wouldn't get flagged by MoCo's censorship robots.

Internet filters are despised by librarians and free speech advocates alike. The Brennan Center for Justice issued a report on web censorship filters and noted:
...because filters must, by necessity, search the web for potentially objectionable sites using  “keyword” identification, they both “overblock” (censoring sites that are not objectionable) and “underblock” (failing to identify pornography or other material targeted by their various blocking categories)....
For instance, one filtering program, SurfWatch, blocked the University of Kansas’s Archie R. Dykes Medical Library website upon detecting the word “dykes.” Cyber Patrol blocked a Knights of Columbus site and a site for aspiring dentists when set to block only “sexually explicit” materials.  SmartFilter blocked the Declaration of Independence, Shakespeare’s complete plays, Moby Dick, and Marijuana: Facts for Teens, a brochure published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 
Montgomery County also previously blocked employees (including constituent service staff) from Facebook access. Nevermind that some government officials ought to be using it more -- Facebook is the most popular site on the Internet (more than Google). These days Internet filters are still the focus of litigation and activism, because school districts use them to censor information about homosexuality. In fact, this summer, the ACLU had to launch a project to combat web filtering:
Web-filtering software companies have responded swiftly to the American Civil Liberties Union’s “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, which calls on schools to stop blocking students’ access to websites supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

WANTED: Member of Congress from MD to Fight Patriot Act

I truly weep at the state of attention paid to civil liberties in America. MoCo's curfew proposal is just the tip of the idiocy iceberg. Remember when Democrats used to rail against John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act?  But then we started winning all those elections.... And well, Bin Laden is dead now. And I guess I am still scared of terrorists (and sometimes Muslims).... *shrug*

Meanwhile, even though we all stopped caring, The New York Times this week launched a lawsuit against the DOJ asking them to reveal details about their new secret interpretation of the Patriot Act:
Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been alleging for months that the government is misleading the public about its secret interpretation of the law. In May, Senator Wyden said that the American people would be "stunned" and "angry" when they find out how the government is using the act.
Yup. When we first raised red flags about the Patriot Act, we had to make "slippery slope" arguments (ie: this may one day lead to government abuse). But after 10 years of actually living under the Patriot Act, Maryland Juice thinks that we have slid fully down the slope. The very Patriot Act abuses we feared have become our reality, and nobody seems to care.

I hope Senators Cardin and Mikulski will take the public's side on this and other civil liberties issues, and I hope Democrats will take cues from some of the populist fervor and passion for liberty issues that the Tea Party has been successful in honing for the right. After all, we no longer have a Russ Feingold in the Senate to unflinchingly advance a progressive interpretation of the Constitution. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, however, is taking up some of the slack. He sounded the following alarm bells in Wired magazine earlier this year:
“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.” 
What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business-records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation. 
“It is fair to say that the business-records provision is a part of the Patriot Act that I am extremely interested in reforming,” Wyden says. “I know a fair amount about how it’s interpreted, and I am going to keep pushing, as I have, to get more information about how the Patriot Act is being interpreted declassified. I think the public has a right to public debate about it.”
Will Senators Cardin and Mikulski aid Senator Wyden, the New York Times, and the ACLU in this endeavor? It seems so strange to me that Democrats could elevate the Patriot Act to such prominence in their campaigns and then senselessly reauthorize the bill whenever it comes up. There is a whole lot of federal clout in the Maryland political delegation -- our officials are now or have been high-ups in the DCCC, DGA, White House, Congress, etc. I hope someone out there is reading. I think the Democratic base is hungry for pols to run hard with our agenda and apologize later.

P.S. If you want to avoid the MoCo employee web filter, just jump on one of the County's free WiFi networks in Rockville. If you don't work for MoCo and are facing workplace Internet censorship, check out this website. :)

1 comment: