Filtering at the Wisconsin State Capitol

Here at Herdict, we spend a lot of time looking at website blockages abroad, whether it be complete network shutdowns in Egypt or the ongoing blockage of sites like Youtube in China.  But blockings occur at home as well, where their unexpected nature can make them a lot more insidious.  For example, Amtrak offers wireless internet on its luxury Acela trains but routinely blocks sites it deems “inappropriate” as well as all streaming video which would slurp up the shared and discrete bandwidth available to all customers.

Monday, pro-union site DefendWisconsin.org announced that it was being blocked on the guest wireless at the Wisconsin Capitol Building.

CNN reported the Governor’s spokesperson saying this was nothing nefarious, and in fact all new sites are blocked on the network:

“The Department of Administration blocks all new websites shortly after they are created, until they go through a software approval program that unblocks them,”

Let’s think about how this would work.  We don’t think they mean all new sites to the internet, which would be challenging, costly, and unnecessary (why bother finding and blocking sites that no one is trying to get to). We believe they mean new sites relative to their network, so a site commonly visited on their wireless internet, like Wisconsin.gov, would appear on the white list and would connect automatically, while a site that had never been accessed from their network, like, say, MinnesotaRules.com (ok, we made that up, but some one should create that site), would be entered into a queue to be approved.  This is a very restrictive and potentially expensive solution.  Would all sites in this queue have to be manually checked for both “appropriate” content as well as lack of malware?  If there is a manual process, we think we may have found a place for Wisconsin to cut its budget.  If it’s automatic, then we want to know what software they’re using to process these requests, how long the queue is, what the average delay is between a request for a site and its approval, and what criteria is used to determine an “appropriate” site to be served on the guest network.  We have further concerns about what metadata is collected on the users who are requesting these sites.  Are such requests personally identifiable?  What happens to these requests once they are processed?  Is the information discarded, or retained, and for how long?

Since Monday, we’ve received 4 reports on DefendWisconsin.org.  Only one was an inaccessible report, from a user at George Washington University, saying they received a 403 and a 404 error, which were resolved shortly thereafter.  A 404 error means their browser was able to make contact with the site’s server, but the page they requested did not exist.  A 403 error is an “access denied” error, usually encountered when a user tries access page they aren’t authenticated for.  This report could indicate that DefendWisconsin.org was having server trouble of their own, but with only one report, we’re just guessing.

Herdict relies on user reports to determine the status of a site.  We are only as strong as our user reports.  Please, submit a report to Herdict (download the Herdict toolbar, test sites using the Reporter or send a tweet to @herdictreport) when you come across a site that you can’t get to.  And keep the comments coming.  As this story shows, they can be very helpful.

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About the Author: lmiyakawa

Laura Miyakawa is the Project Manager for Herdict. In this role, she directs the tactics and the long term strategy for the site. Prior to joining the Berkman Center, Laura worked with the Boston Consulting Group, developing strategies for high tech clients up and down the East coast. While at BCG, she had the opportunity to work in outback Australia on a Welfare Reform pilot. Recently, she worked as a commercialization associate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where she handled all patenting and licensing decisions for the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. Laura holds bachelors and masters degrees in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and MIT, respectively.

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