The Interior Department ban on certain websites

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The news that the Department of Interior has banned certain websites (see our left hand column) has made it to The Federal Times, which means that at least some senior level attention is going to be paid to this attempt at censorship. The Federal Times is very widely read at management levels in the federal government.

Frank Quimby, spkesman for the DoI, tells M.Z. Hemingway of the FT that,

Blogs — Web sites providing regular updates on a variety of topics — are among blocked sites because some include sexually explicit language, libelous or defamatory commentary, and outrageous language, said Frank Quimby, spokesman for the agency.
 
In addition to the September IG report, a chief information officer survey earlier this year found employees failing to comply with Interior's policy prohibiting the use of government computers on government time for sites unrelated to business.
'People shouldn't be having access to blogs — at least on government computers on government time,' Quimby said.

When an employee visits a prohibited site, a screen pops up on the computer explaining the site has been blocked. However, employees can appeal the blockade and request access. Quimby said the public affairs office was appealing to be able to view blogs with news about Interior.

I don't want federal employees downloading porn or trolling MySpace for nymphets. But there are a few holes in this story. Why, for instance, were only conservative sites blocked, bit not Daily Kos, for example?

And what do they mean by a blog? AT doesn't use blogging software, does not allow reader comments, and is an edited journal of news and analysis. If we are blog, then so is US News & World Report, The San Francisco Chronicle, and many other news sites which allow their writers to post short commentaries.

Sean Gleeson, the mastermind who designed the seal for banned blogs, has some other good points.

First the justification that blogs are not work—related:

1. The same is true for the entire Internet, not just blogs. Of all the websites in existence, only a tiny sliver of them might contain work—related content for DOI staff. Singling out blogs as being especially non—work—related makes little sense. For what it's worth, I would bet that the proportion of work—related to non—work—related content is actually higher for the blogosphere than for the Web as a whole.

2. The ban is for all time, not just paid time. There is no policy against using government computers for personal Web browsing on the employee's own time. If a DOI employee wants to come to the office early, or eat lunch at his desk, or stay awhile after work, there is no reason to block him from reading a few blogs. But the DOI blog ban blocks all blogs at all times.

BLOGS ARE OFFENSIVE

The other justification offered by the DOI spokesman was that blogs 'are among blocked sites because some include sexually explicit language, libelous or defamatory commentary, and outrageous language.' Again, this is indisputably true; some blogs include some or all of those things. And the DOI certainly has a valid interest in keeping such content off of government computers, even on the employees' personal time.

The problems with this justification are:

1. The same is true for the entire Internet, not just blogs. I hate to sound like a broken record here, but some websites that are not blogs also contain pornography and other bad things. A website is not more likely to be obscene because it is a blog. I think most blogs (like this one) are clean as a whistle.

2. The ban is on all blogs, not just obscene ones. There is software that can block obscene content from a Web browser. Parents and school libraries use it all the time, so why can't DOI? Or why not make use of the ICRA system of content labels, which was designed for exactly this sort of purpose?

It strikes me that this topic reaches far beyond the DoI to include the entire federal government. The plain fact is that internet websites have demonstrated that they are ahead of the rest of the media on many vital topics of relevance to federal agencies. Harry Reid's land deals, an issue iunvolving the DoI is a very current example. Should the federal government lobotomize its employees by making them depend on antique media?

And why were conservative sites only blocked at first? If the initial report in the Gates of Vienna is true, then someone at DoI is covering up.

Zonka adds,

...history [has] shown, there is really no way to effectively block or censor away a segment of the Internet while keeping the rest. The only foolproof way of blocking a part of the Internet is to block the entire Internet! There are various kinds of proxies working in different ways, that will let you browse anything to your hearts content, while anonymizing the transfer, sometimes even encrypting the transfer making it impossible for the employers to see what is being browsed. Others use different protocols and aren't relying on the HTTP protocol, but can send webpages to your computer using Instant Messaging, E—mail, Text messages (SMS), etc. And all of that is provided that the employees aren't browsing the 'forbidden' web—sites using PDAs or even connecting their laptops to the Internet using a modem and a phoneline or cellphone.

This raises the amusing possibility of the DoI contracting with the Chinese government and Google, to learn about the latest and most effective ways to block the free flow of information. Of course, that would be ridiculous, as Bill O'Reilly frequently says.

Perhaps Congressional hearings are in order. What should be the policy of the federal government toward its workers reading any internet content at work? If they are to be permitted to read the internet (i.e., if they are permitted to be informed of the most up—to—date news), then should any sites be banned? if so, accoprding to what crieria?

Int he end, I think Zonka is correct when he states,

...a better way of doing this would have to explain to employees that they aren't supposed to be using work time to be using the Internet for seeking information that is not related to their job, and that web—traffic is being monitored, and anybody spending too much time on non—work related web—sites would have to explain their behavior and face the consequences, whether that would be restriction of their Internet access, being fired or something else.

Thomas Lifson  10 14 06

The news that the Department of Interior has banned certain websites (see our left hand column) has made it to The Federal Times, which means that at least some senior level attention is going to be paid to this attempt at censorship. The Federal Times is very widely read at management levels in the federal government.

Frank Quimby, spkesman for the DoI, tells M.Z. Hemingway of the FT that,

Blogs — Web sites providing regular updates on a variety of topics — are among blocked sites because some include sexually explicit language, libelous or defamatory commentary, and outrageous language, said Frank Quimby, spokesman for the agency.
 
In addition to the September IG report, a chief information officer survey earlier this year found employees failing to comply with Interior's policy prohibiting the use of government computers on government time for sites unrelated to business.
'People shouldn't be having access to blogs — at least on government computers on government time,' Quimby said.

When an employee visits a prohibited site, a screen pops up on the computer explaining the site has been blocked. However, employees can appeal the blockade and request access. Quimby said the public affairs office was appealing to be able to view blogs with news about Interior.

I don't want federal employees downloading porn or trolling MySpace for nymphets. But there are a few holes in this story. Why, for instance, were only conservative sites blocked, bit not Daily Kos, for example?

And what do they mean by a blog? AT doesn't use blogging software, does not allow reader comments, and is an edited journal of news and analysis. If we are blog, then so is US News & World Report, The San Francisco Chronicle, and many other news sites which allow their writers to post short commentaries.

Sean Gleeson, the mastermind who designed the seal for banned blogs, has some other good points.

First the justification that blogs are not work—related:

1. The same is true for the entire Internet, not just blogs. Of all the websites in existence, only a tiny sliver of them might contain work—related content for DOI staff. Singling out blogs as being especially non—work—related makes little sense. For what it's worth, I would bet that the proportion of work—related to non—work—related content is actually higher for the blogosphere than for the Web as a whole.

2. The ban is for all time, not just paid time. There is no policy against using government computers for personal Web browsing on the employee's own time. If a DOI employee wants to come to the office early, or eat lunch at his desk, or stay awhile after work, there is no reason to block him from reading a few blogs. But the DOI blog ban blocks all blogs at all times.

BLOGS ARE OFFENSIVE

The other justification offered by the DOI spokesman was that blogs 'are among blocked sites because some include sexually explicit language, libelous or defamatory commentary, and outrageous language.' Again, this is indisputably true; some blogs include some or all of those things. And the DOI certainly has a valid interest in keeping such content off of government computers, even on the employees' personal time.

The problems with this justification are:

1. The same is true for the entire Internet, not just blogs. I hate to sound like a broken record here, but some websites that are not blogs also contain pornography and other bad things. A website is not more likely to be obscene because it is a blog. I think most blogs (like this one) are clean as a whistle.

2. The ban is on all blogs, not just obscene ones. There is software that can block obscene content from a Web browser. Parents and school libraries use it all the time, so why can't DOI? Or why not make use of the ICRA system of content labels, which was designed for exactly this sort of purpose?

It strikes me that this topic reaches far beyond the DoI to include the entire federal government. The plain fact is that internet websites have demonstrated that they are ahead of the rest of the media on many vital topics of relevance to federal agencies. Harry Reid's land deals, an issue iunvolving the DoI is a very current example. Should the federal government lobotomize its employees by making them depend on antique media?

And why were conservative sites only blocked at first? If the initial report in the Gates of Vienna is true, then someone at DoI is covering up.

Zonka adds,

...history [has] shown, there is really no way to effectively block or censor away a segment of the Internet while keeping the rest. The only foolproof way of blocking a part of the Internet is to block the entire Internet! There are various kinds of proxies working in different ways, that will let you browse anything to your hearts content, while anonymizing the transfer, sometimes even encrypting the transfer making it impossible for the employers to see what is being browsed. Others use different protocols and aren't relying on the HTTP protocol, but can send webpages to your computer using Instant Messaging, E—mail, Text messages (SMS), etc. And all of that is provided that the employees aren't browsing the 'forbidden' web—sites using PDAs or even connecting their laptops to the Internet using a modem and a phoneline or cellphone.

This raises the amusing possibility of the DoI contracting with the Chinese government and Google, to learn about the latest and most effective ways to block the free flow of information. Of course, that would be ridiculous, as Bill O'Reilly frequently says.

Perhaps Congressional hearings are in order. What should be the policy of the federal government toward its workers reading any internet content at work? If they are to be permitted to read the internet (i.e., if they are permitted to be informed of the most up—to—date news), then should any sites be banned? if so, accoprding to what crieria?

Int he end, I think Zonka is correct when he states,

...a better way of doing this would have to explain to employees that they aren't supposed to be using work time to be using the Internet for seeking information that is not related to their job, and that web—traffic is being monitored, and anybody spending too much time on non—work related web—sites would have to explain their behavior and face the consequences, whether that would be restriction of their Internet access, being fired or something else.

Thomas Lifson  10 14 06