Cybersecurity Firm Apologizes After Parental Controls Block Conservative Sites for ‘Hate' and ‘Violence’
An Internet provider's parental controls contractor restricted access to a wide assortment of conservative sites on the premise that their content contains "hate" and "violence." The restriction is not unique to conservative sites, but liberal sites are not branded as "hateful" or "violent." The company responsible has apologized and is working to clear all the sites wrongfully restricted.
"There is no conspiracy," a spokeswoman from Frontier Communications, the Internet provider that uses F-Secure, a cybersecurity firm tasked with monitoring the parental controls, told PJ Media.
When a customer of Frontier Communications, who used the parental controls provided by F-Secure, accessed PJ Media, for example, she ran across this message: "Web site blocked. This web site contains restricted content. Access to this type of content has been blocked." Below the message were two yellow dots for "Hate" and "Violence," with the option to "Allow web site" at the bottom.
PJ Media was far from alone. The Christian news and opinion site First Things received the same distinction. Rod Dreher reported that The American Conservative, Front Page Magazine, and other sites were also blocked.
F-Secure also blocked Christian Headlines for "Hate."
The Weekly Standard was marked "Hate."
The page restricting RedState added a third concern, "Weapons."
Even nonprofit organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC) were blocked for "Hate" and "Violence."
Some Leftist sites, including the Daily Kos, NARAL, and Advocate.com, have also been blocked, but not for "Hate" and "Violence." Most liberal sites did not get blocked, however, including Mother Jones, HuffPost, The Nation, Salon, and others. Neither Planned Parenthood nor the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was blocked.
"Frontier does not censor websites, period," a Frontier Communications spokeswoman told PJ Media. She insisted that "this is a parental control," but also noted that Frontier Communications is not responsible for any errors involved in these controls.
While the Frontier Communications logo appeared on the "blocked" messages, the parental controls were developed by F-Secure, a separate entity. "Frontier Secure" is the product F-Secure developed for Frontier Communications.
F-Secure issued an apology to PJ Media, and promised to recategorize it and other conservative news sites to avoid the filter. "In this instance, our automation process failed to correctly categorize PJ Media as a news site. As a result, it was blocked by our content filters for 'violence or hate' due to some keywords in the subpages. These keywords are common to any news site and were flagged in error," F-Secure said.
"We apologize to PJ Media for the mistake and for any confusion it may have caused the site's readers," the company said. "Once this issue was brought to our attention, we immediately categorized PJ Media correctly as a news site. It is no longer being blocked by our services."
F-Secure also laid out how the company selects sites to block using parental controls. "At F-Secure, we take protecting children from inappropriate content very seriously. Given the scale of the Internet, we use both automatic and manual processes to categorize and filter web content. These categorizations are based on the keywords, images and metadata found on each site – both the front page and the subpages – and not through a blocklist," the company explained.
"However, automation produces a tiny percentage of false alarms which we constantly aim to improve, so we appreciate it when customers report back to us," F-Secure concluded. The company suggested users report any more incorrect categorizations at this link.
The Frontier Communications spokeswoman insisted to PJ Media that "there is no conspiracy," and this case is indeed small potatoes compared to the reach of tech giants like YouTube, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Frontier Secure's blocking of PJ Media, The American Conservative, RedState, and others only applied to users who receive Internet from Frontier Communications, who bought the F-Secure cybersecurity program offered by Frontier Communications, and who activated the parental controls.
Yet this case comes in an era of Internet companies disproportionately harming conservatives. The worst part about this case echoes a campaign by the Leftist Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which routinely brands as "hateful" a wide array of mainstream organizations that disagree with its political advocacy. F-Secure has not yet answered PJ Media's question as to why conservative sites got a "Hate" label that liberal sites did not receive.
The SPLC has marked many mainstream conservative Christian groups as "hate groups," including D. James Kennedy Ministries, the Family Research Council (FRC), and Liberty Counsel. Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz made the list as an "anti-Muslim extremist" for many changing reasons, one of which was Nawaz's visit to a strip club for his bachelor party. The SPLC has even branded the American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers an enabler of "Male Supremacy."
The SPLC included the innocent town of Amana Colonies on its "hate map," the same "hate map" that a terrorist used to target the FRC in 2012 (and the same "hate map" CNN broadcast to the world last year). Last year, arsonists targeted a church, seemingly having mistaken it for one branded as an "anti-LGBT hate group" by the SPLC.
Despite the fact that SPLC leaders have admitted their "hate" designations are based on "opinion," many powerful tech companies have adopted the list as gospel. Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a $1 million donation to the SPLC, along with a system to partner with the group.
Vanco Payments withdrew its service from the "hate group" the Ruth Institute, taking away that organization's ability to process donations online. The charity navigation website GuideStar adopted the SPLC "hate group" list, marking each profile of the targeted organizations as a "hate group." Amazon adopted the list, and ended up restricting D. James Kennedy Ministries from its charity connection service, Amazon Smile, because of the SPLC designation.
Last year, ProPublica "reporter" Lauren Kirchner sent an email to conservatives like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller that amounted to a threat. "I am contacting you to let you know that we are including your website in a list of cites that have been designated as hate or extremist by the American Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center."
The email noted, "We have identified several tech companies on your website: PayPal, Amazon, Newsmax, and Revcontent. Can you confirm that you receive funds from your relationship with those tech companies? How would the loss of those funds affect your operations, and how would you be able to replace them?"
As PJ Media's Paula Bolyard paraphrased, "Nice website you've got there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it."
YouTube has restricted more than 40 videos from the conservative nonprofit Prager University, inspiring a lawsuit. James Damore, the former senior software engineer fired by Google after releasing a manifesto attacking the company as an "ideological echo chamber," has sued his former employer and even revealed an internal witch hunt the company is allegedly carrying out against conservatives.
A recent survey found widespread fear and self-censorship among conservatives in Silicon Valley, and likely for good reason.
In this case, F-Secure admitted that human error may have been involved in branding some of the websites with "Hate" and "Violence" markers. In this context, such an error would merely represent one more instance of bias against conservatives.
F-Secure has apologized, and it seems appropriate action has indeed been taken to rectify this situation. Even so, conservatives must remain vigilant and tech companies should work to prevent even the suggestion of impropriety or selective bias.