Can "blocking software" companies be sued?
March 8, 2001 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Can "blocking software" companies be sued? This is interesting. The Register (a respected if somewhat snide computer industry online rag) has somehow managed to land on Cyber Patrol's block list as a "sex site". Now they're conducting something called an ABCe audit and they're making nasty noises about "restraint of trade". Which makes me wonder if they're thinking "lawsuit".

The blocking-software companies have been using rather broad brushes in making their blocking lists. Although some claim that any site they block is checked by a human first, with thousands of new sites appearing every day there simply isn't any way. Peacefire has documented hundreds of sites which were blocked inappropriately. I am pretty certain that under US law that blockees have no recourse -- but perhaps the law in the EU is different. Anyone over there care to comment? Is it plausible that an "ABCe audit" could result in a lawsuit? (I'd really love to see a few high profile big-bucks lawsuits here.)
posted by Steven Den Beste (9 comments total)
I certainly hope they are able to sue.

I've yet to see a blocking program that:
a) actually blocked porn (or whatever)
b) would let you into ok sites.

These people should really be brought up on false advertising, as their claims are generally just plain lies.
posted by sonofsamiam at 8:03 AM on March 8, 2001

I'm really surprised this issue hasn't arisen sooner. If my site were blocked inappropriately, I'd have sued years ago. (Actually, my blog probably is, as it has a dirty word in the domain name--even though the content is harmless.)

To the Courts!
posted by jpoulos at 8:35 AM on March 8, 2001

This is becoming more and more germane lately as public libraries are the subject of lawmaking forcing them to use filters if they want to continue to receive federal and/or local funds. This could mean that if your site is blocked people in public libraries could not see it, ever.

The good news is that the filtering frenzy has led to an even stronger anti-filtering backlash which has been getting some good information out about how the filters do and do not work, encouraging people to get informed about how their site does or does not make it through the filters.
posted by jessamyn at 9:07 AM on March 8, 2001

On what grounds would you sue? That a private entity has chosen to allow another private entity to decide which sites are accessible? I may not like it, but that is certainly acceptable behavior. If the software is not blocking the appropriate sites, then it is the purchaser of the software that may have recourse, not the owner of the blocked site.

Now, this is the problem with the government forcing these products into public institutions like schools and libraries. Because then the public is the purchaser. I'm not sure what I feel should be the level of liability for the blocking software, but I think it would be sufficient grounds to sue the government for removal of that software.

Besides, the courts have already said that the government can not use private rating systems for controlling public access to stuff. (Those rulings were in response to municipal attempts to codify the MPAA movie ratings, but I think this is similar enough.) I, of course, am not a lawyer.
posted by obfusciatrist at 9:07 AM on March 8, 2001

obfusciatrist: on what grounds? Defamation. CyperPatrol are making a (kind of) statement about The Reg which is leading its readers/customers to decide not to visit the site.OK, the tricky part is that the "decision" is automatic, but if I were to go around saying Ford was a porn company, and influence people to stop buying Ford cars, I think I could expect a lawsuit.jpoulos: I checked the name and your site should be blocked, you filthy animal ;-)
posted by flimjam at 9:16 AM on March 8, 2001

I believe they're talking about 'restraint of trade'. As in, because of this blocking software, their readers can't see the site. If their readers can't see the site, their numbers go down and ad revenue goes down the gurgler.
Interestingly, they haven't even mentioned public access yet. Their main complaint is that as an IT news site, their target market tends to be people accessing the site from work... and that anyone whose workplace is running CyberPatrol or a derivative (such as, say, Novell Border Manager) won't be able to access their site.
To use a metaphor: if you were to stand outside a shop and physically prevent customers from entering, you'd expect the shopowners to be a little annoyed. That's roughly how The Register seems to see it. They rely on people being able to see their site to make their money: inappropriate blocking is thus restraining their trade.
I'd be interested to see if they can make it stand up in court, mind.

posted by jackelder at 9:21 AM on March 8, 2001

To use a metaphor: if you were to stand outside a shop and physically prevent customers from entering, you'd expect the shopowners to be a little annoyed. That's roughly how The Register seems to see it.

That may be how The Register sees it, but I don't think it is a particularly appropriate metaphor.

Rather than a company standing outside of The Registers doors, barring people from entering it is more like the company is hiring a security guard to keep The Register from entering their doors.

I find the approach of claiming that they are wronged because corporate employees won't be able to access their site interesting. I think it is already pretty well established (in the U.S., at least) that a company can block any web site it wants for any reason it wants (employees to not have a right to surf the web while working or with company equipment.) Again, I have to think that the only person with an actionable complaint would be the company buying the software.

I don't like the filtering programs. They are inefficient, occasionally spiteful, and as a non-practicing librarian harmful to a profession I hold dear. I encourage The Register to scream bloody murder, but I just don't see them winning a court case in the U.S. (but the Brits are weird, so who knows).
posted by obfusciatrist at 9:44 AM on March 8, 2001

No lawsuit will be needed. CyberPatrol backed down after scores of Register readers complained.

And the reason The Register was blocked? For the crime of linking to Peacefire where instructions/programs are online which permit a kid to deactivate CyberPatrol without the parental control password. Peacefire itself is blocked also, of course.

In other words, CyberPatrol is using censorship to cover up the fundamentally lousy design of their package. If they'd done their job well, there wouldn't be any way to deactivate without the password and they wouldn't need to suppress PeaceFire or anyone else who talks about PeaceFire or who mirrors PeaceFire's program. This is sort of like RIAA trying to suppress DECSS with lawyers -- ultimately futile.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:36 AM on March 9, 2001

I suspect that the filter makers are only using cracking as an excuse to block out any substantive criticism of their product, or of the principle of web filtering. I seem to remember that one old version of some filter (Cyber Sitter, perhaps) would refuse to install on any machine that had Peacefire in its history.

As an aside, can anybody explain to me why X-Stop (the filter imposed upon us peons at my office) would block A List Apart? (Before anyone asks, the block predates the Browser Upgrade Initiative.)
posted by harmful at 10:40 AM on March 9, 2001

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