Dell, through the SonicWALL acquisition, has been in the internet content filtering business for over a decade. During that time the world has gone from fewer than a 100,000 registered URLs to more than a billion. Our job is to categorize those sites and give IT administrators control over their network. In those 10 years, we’ve had very few complaints. Yes, we sometimes rate a site in one way and either that site’s emphasis changes over time, or, we may make a categorization mistake. It does happen. In other cases a website generates little traffic and we don’t come across it so our system responds as “Not Rated". On the whole though, we’ve been very good and we’ve received a lot of positive credit for it.
Over the last few days, we’ve had a different experience.
A school had a policy to block a category of sites rated as Politics/Advocacy Groups at their site using our content filtering product. It’s important to note that our product does not come with that category turned on. The school actively turned it on. The result was a student was prevented from doing some key research. Further, the policy at this school allowed “Not Rated” sites to be accessed. Most school IT administrators block the Not Rated category since millions of new *** and malware sites come online each month and it is very important to block them until they can be rated. The combination of blocking Politics/Advocacy Groups had a bad outcome. The student found he was blocked from many conservative political sites but could get to many sites he described as liberal that had the category of “Not Rated.” The student couldn't do appropriate research and the combination of the block/allow policy lead to a perception that we had a political bias. Not only that, someone jumped to the conclusion that we somehow rated conservative sites and somehow gave liberal sites a “Not Rated” category.
Amusingly, logic should have dictated a different conclusion. “If” we had somehow deliberately rated liberal sites “Not Rated” through some conspiracy, then it would mean more liberal sites would generally be blocked than conservative sites. Why? Because most IT Administrators naturally block the Not Rated category due to the dangers of exposing networks to malware and other problems. Kind of funny. If this conspiracy were true, it would actually be more anti-liberal in most networks. But guess what? This has become a run-away story.
I was asked how we can filter conservative, liberal or other political categories. Here is what gets rated and how:
This is a tricky business and it is not a perfect science. But we do our best to help IT administrators by providing the tools so that they can use their networks the way they want to. We don’t make any judgments, we simply try to give tools. And if we make mistakes, we correct them. But, unfortunately, the subject area is not so exciting that it can support a full-blown conspiracy.
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We provide multiple tools so anyone can request a rating or re-rating and it is done in 24 hours. In this particular case, we deliberately held on re-rating the sites the student identified so we could researched based on the original data (I know I'll get a lot of cynicism on that one, but true.) And contrary to what is said below, yes, both pro life and pro choice are BOTH in the Advocacy category. There is run-away misinformation at this point so you'll need to spend a few minutes looking at real data and drawing your own conclusions. Later today, I'll post data regarding the URLs in question that I think you will find interesting.
[I am surprised at Dell not correcting the site categories instead of a how it works article.]
Perhaps Dell had someone who is good at writing articles writing this, while the folks good at rating sites were busy rating. It's called "multitasking."
And the "Not Rated" sites can't be "corrected." "Not Rated" doesn't mean someone gave the site that rating, it means that no one has rated them yet. And they haven't been rated because very few people have visited them. How else, besides site popularity, would you set the rating priority?
Patrick, did you ever leave the URL information that you said you would be posting on 6/20? I'd like to give Dell the benefit of the doubt, but student access to both sides of any story is too important to leave it to an artful flowchart.
Visit cfssupport.sonicwall.com to view ratings. Visit sites before you make a judgement and also consider the difficulty in categorization. And yep, we make some mistakes from time to time so submit the mistakes. But when looking for a BIAS, don’t take shortcuts. Fox, Examiner, and Republican American all did follow up stories and dug deeper and found “much a do about nothing”. Compare like for like sites. And correlate visitation (a key in this) via tools like www.alexa.com so if you see it being Not Rated, see if it gets traffic. And be sure to spell the URLs exactly correctly - 4 of the URLs we received from the school were misspelled which means they are “Not Rated” since we don’t have data on them. That is not a bias, that is bad spelling. And use logic. The fundamental irony is being ignored. Not Rated SHOULD be blocked since that is how malware entities get malware in – through the release of millions of new URLs. Plus, factor in that fundamental mistakes in the “research” in the story. Example, Blocking of http://www.teaparty.org/ was sited as evidence of a Liberal bias. But guess what? That rating was mistakingly NOT Politics/Advocacy so not blocked by Policy/Advocacy. Summary: No, not bias. What there was? Multiple low trafficked sites that had not been rated (which I’ll put into the queue now that the debate is winding down) + the inverse policy on Not Rated (which would have inverted the conclusions) + some bad research used as evidence + several mis-ratings (out of millions).