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Wired News
Thursday, June 24, 1999
9:15am, PDT

Canadian Furor Over Net Filters

by Jennifer Ditchburn, chicas@iosphere.net

OTTAWA, Ontario -- The Ontario provincial government is limiting the access its employees have to the Internet by installing a filtering device that prevents them from connecting to certain sites.

San Jose, California-based Secure Computing will provide the technology that bars users from Web pages that deal with criminal skills, drugs, sex, obscene, or violent material, and hate speech.

The company's Smartfilter relies on a list of thousands of sites, which is updated daily. The government was involved only in choosing the broad categories of sites that are barred, but does not review the company's list.

Certain provincial employees will continue to have free access to the Internet, namely law enforcement officials who must conduct investigative work online.

The software goes one step further than the federal government's present Internet policy, which simply outlines for employees what kinds of sites are not appropriate to view during work hours.

The Ontario government has had no written policy in place.

Judith GlynWilliams, spokeswoman for Ontario's Management Board Secretariat, said the decision to use the Smartfilter represents a preemptive strike at a time when Internet access and productivity decreases are major issues.

"It was just a response to the potential for a problem", she said. "There was this increasing use of the Internet -- I think over 50 percent of government employees have access to the Internet."

The filters came as news to the union that represents employees of the provincial government. Katy FitzRandolph, spokeswoman for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said the decision was made without any employee consultation.

"It's an abuse of power", said FitzRandolph. "We don't condone members learning how to build bombs on work time, or looking up pornography at work ... and I doubt if very many do. If the government feels this is a problem they can raise this with us in their many forms."

The use of filtering devices has spurred controversy in Canada in the past, but usually around the use of the software in schools and libraries.

Internet free expression advocacy group Electronic Frontier Canada have lobbied against the use of filters, arguing that they inadvertently block out sites that don't qualify as illegal or obscene, and miss some of the thousands of new Web pages that appear every day.

"For adults, working at a job where they're trying to find a certain piece of information which they can't get to because the filter mistakenly think it's pornography, that's unacceptable", said spokesman Jeffrey Shallit.

"Just in terms of intelligent policymaking, this is foolhardy and well out of proportion of the problem."

The Canadian government has had an Internet use policy in place since late last year that spells out what kinds of sites are inappropriate to visit. Employees caught violating the standards can have their Internet access completely blocked, be suspended, or even be fired for serious infractions.

But Treasury Board department spokesman Robert Bousquet said there are no plans to consider using filters.

"We depend on the ethics and good judgment of our employees", he said. "The measures and disciplinary procedures that we have in place are there to discourage people from going to those sites."


Copyright © 1999 by Wired Digital Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.