March 16, 2005

The experience of capricious censorship

I'm frustrated. Three separate attempts to produce a blog entry this morning have been stopped by the weirdest netnannity that I've ever seen.

I'm at the Airlie Center in Warrenton, VA, attending a workshop, on which more later. Airlie is a lovely place, whose web page says that it was "founded in 1960 as an 'island of thought', and has provided a unique environment for the the creative exchange of ideas ever since." This environment features hundreds of acres of lovely countryside, swans in mating duets, and an internet connection, available in the rooms for the usual $9.95 per day, that capriciously blocks about half the web.

I first noticed this when I tried to access the comics archive at What I got instead of Doonesbury was a big dark-blue page, blank except for a light-blue box reading:

This site is blocked by the IT Department. Contact the IT Dept. For help if needed.

The page title is "SonicWALL -- Web Site Blocked." Gee, I thought, that's funny. Did one of Trudeau's strips insult the swans?

Then I started to compose a post on the origins of the term Grammelot. Stefano Taschini wrote that his Italian dictionary says it "might result from the composition of the French words grammaire, mêler, and argot", but he couldn't find it in any French dictionaries. So I thought I'd check the Gallica website at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Oops -- blocked by the IT department again. Now, I've been critical of the BNF, but blocking their site doesn't make it better.

So to soothe myself, I took a quick tour through our blogroll. But and and apparently every other site at blogspot were blocked. Also blocked were:

Allowed, on the other hand, were (and apparently all other typepad sites) (and apparently all other livejournal sites)

This doesn't make any sense at all as an attempt to protect America's conference-goers from nefarious influences.

I can see three alternative explanations. One is that it's pure pharmaceutical-grade incompetence -- someone's pet cat sleeping fitfully on a keyboard connected to SonicWALL's Content Security Management control screen. A second possibility the Airlie IT department is staffed by a manager who is worried about ritual pollution by words and images, and a lackey who has no idea how the web works ("sexually explicit lyrics over at blogspot? check, boss, it's taken care of; and those French postcards won't be a problem again, not at Airlie, no sir."). The third and most probably theory is that the Bastard Operator from Hell has retired to the Virginia countryside and is now running the Airlie IT department. This page might provide some insight -- I don't know, I can't read it, myself, because

This site is blocked by the IT Department. Contact the IT Dept. For help if needed.

[Seriously, you can look up the rating of URLs according to SonicWALL's Content Filtering Service database, and you'll find that the BNF, the site, all blogspot weblogs, Ray Girvan's site, etc. etc. are all classified as "Category 14 - Arts/Entertainment". Apparently the Airlie IT department has voted arts and entertainment off their "island of thought". Or could that just be the default configuration for SonicWALL's software? ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 16, 2005 07:02 AM