Monday, March 5, 2012

Montgomery County "Explains" Workplace Internet Censorship // UMD Professor: "A Pity That Tax Money Spent To Filter"

INTRODUCTION: Last week a Maryland Juice reader alerted us to more Internet censorship for employees of Montgomery County's government. As we've previously reported, Montgomery County censors its Internet connections in government buildings -- including for public employees, in libraries, and more. In the past, this censorship has been clearly content-based and selectively targeted LGBT content, along with hilariously innocuous content, like a seniors center event calendar. This awesome public amenity costs taxpayers over $64,000 a year. What is the public purpose of this again?

Chairman MoCo is now randomly blocking images on the Maryland Juice blog -- including our Sam Arora ad, screencaps of Fox News Baltimore's previous anti-LGBT website, and more. We can surmise that this problem is more widespread than our single website. After complaining to Montgomery County's public information officer, we received a very unsatisfactory response -- which basically amounts to "all Internet censorship filters make errors." Yes -- we understand that, and it is precisely why we abhor ALL INTERNET CENSORSHIP FILTERS.

Below we print the response from Chairman Moco's Minister of Propaganda Patrick Lacefield, along with a critique from University of Maryland Professor Jim Purtilo:
PATRICK LACEFIELD: DTS tells me that this is a simple vendor miscategorization issue with the blogspot domain, which has nothing to do with the LGBT juice site. The process for fixing this is simple. We submit the error to the vendor. If the vendor determines that the images have been mis-categorized they usually fix them within 2 business hours after our notification.

All of the URL filtering vendors have a small number of mistakes in their categorization. Requests for re-categorization is a standard operational process that has been done by every customer to every vendor. We encourage every employee to report potential mis-categorized sites to the County's IT HelpDesk so that those sites can be sent to the vendor for review (and possible categorization change). Any site that is re-categorized will be applied to all of the vendor's customers at the same time.
JIM PURTILO: Yeah, images involving LGBT symbols, guns and potentially rebroadcast of other copyright protected material (Fox) would all seem to be pretty standard fodder for filters. The county gets what it pays for. What a pity that tax money is spent to filter any such things.

From the IT side, there are a variety of conventions by which images are determined to be in a filter list, after which page loads are dynamically replaced with the sort of images you found. But I think you'll find that in none of the methods used is anyone thinking very hard and long before clicking a yes/no option, if it even goes before the eyes of a human to be checked. So my suggestion here is the same as the last time we had such an exchange. Sure would be nice to see what instructions were part of the contract let by the agency. *Someone* has to decide which policy is being enforced, so either there is a list identifying types of things the commercial firm should not allow to be carried (hence an official can be asked to explain wtf, which could be very entertaining) or there is a 'standard package of services' purchased, in which case, again, someone in government signed off on the purchase, and if they didn't know what they were buying then, well, as you posed, wtf?

Indeed, Montgomery County -- and many other Maryland counties -- blindly censor the Internet like a bunch of @#$#@*!. These IT fogies clearly have too much money to spend on this nonsense and too few real problems to worry about. Except that they do. Maybe they should spend less time censoring the Internet and more time thinking about why their website looks like it was built in 1990. More importantly, that $64,000 a year that they spend on censoring the Net could go a long way towards bringing Montgomery County's online outreach and constituent interaction tools into the 21st century.

P.S. Not that I'm endorsing this project -- but one example is that MoCo recently decided it could not afford a $250,000 news site for residents due to the budget climate. There is no world in which four years of Internet censorship is a better value for taxpayers than providing them with information about what is going on in local government.

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