Monday, March 23, 2009

Does the Mormon Church have a position on Internet filtering?

Over the weekend I ran across an article, awkwardly entitled "Mormons demand ICANN plugs net smut hole." Curious, I clicked on the link, but I almost closed it again when I saw that the article was from The Register. Fortunately, I kept reading and found some interesting tidbits. The article talked about how ICANN, the non-profit organization that controls much of the structure of the Internet, has received a petition (PDF) from a group called CyberSafety Constituency. The organization hopes to be accepted as the newest constituency recognized by ICANN, with the purpose of representing the interests of "families, children, consumers, victims of cybercrime, religions, and cultures." This is mostly a policy issue, but as is often the case, it is hard to separate law from policy. I realized that ICANN policies are not technically laws -- they might even be illegal, since ICANN was not created to make policy decisions -- but inasmuch as it controls the architecture of the Internet, ICANN's word is law.

Kevin Murphy, the author of the article, doesn't do a particularly good job explaining the situation. He apparently concludes that this is a Mormon initiative becuase the proposal is being led by Ralph Yarro III, a well known (and sometimes controversial) Internet and technology figure who is CEO of the Utah-based SCO Group, Inc. The proposal was authored by Cheryl Preston, attorney for CP80, a Utah-based group that proposes "zoning" online adult content to certain ports. Murphy further points out that many of the commenters in the public comment phase have cited their location as Utah. And as he points out, Utah is 58% Mormon. Boom! It must be a Mormon initiative. (Murphy also throws in a superfluous jab against the Mormon church, citing a recent study (PDF) that found that Utah led the nation in online adult content consumption.)

Kevin Murphy did not mention that Cheryl Preston, the CyberSafety Constituency petitioner, is also a BYU law professor. I think this is probably the strongest argument that this ICANN petition is Mormon-supported, although it still isn't dispositive -- individual Mormons are active in a broad array of organizations or causes. To my knowledge, the LDS Church has never taken a position on how the Internet should be governed, or what architecture mechanisms should be used. Even if the Mormon Church supported some sort of protocol that facilitated content filtering, it isn't clear what level of filtering it would advocate. One the one hand, the Church generally opposes pornography, but it also has vested interest in maintaining strong First Amendment rights for its own free exercise of religion. I don't believe there is an official Mormon position on how that balance should be maintained.

For my part, I am reluctant to alter current architecture in the way CP80 proposes. I can see the value in adopting mechanisms that would make it easier for parents to control the content or security threats exposed to their children. But all of these proposals run up against a definitional problem. Even if a functional filtering process is put into place, who decides what content belongs in what "channel"? It's a problem reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart's famous concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, calling it "trying to define what may be indefinable." I also have some reservations about the proposed CyberSafety Constituency's purpose and scope, because the purpose cited in the petition is colossally broad and potentially contradictory. But the bottom line is that this initiative is not supported by the Mormon Church. Not all Mormons would support it, and most Mormons have probably never heard of any of the proposed constituency or its supporting organizations.


  1. You made an accurate conclusion.
    "most Mormons have probably never heard of any of the proposed constituency or its supporting organizations"

    That said, it would be interesting to learn what flitering system the Church office headquarters and official computers throughout the church employment system use. They definitely would have one. I assume they have designed their own, but perhaps they subscribe or have contracted with someone that is "approved"?

  2. I'm sure the Church offices use some sort of web filtering. Brigham Young University has a web filtering system for all of the computers on campus. My work even has a filtering system, a source of annoyance now that they have applied it to sports websites for the duration of March Madness. It makes good sense for businesses and organizations to avoid viruses, productivity distractions, and objectionable content.

    It is another matter entirely to apply restrictions to all of the Internet. To my knowledge the proposed constituency and the proposals of CP80 don't actually filter -- they purport to make consumer-side filtering software work better. (Filtering software is notoriously inaccurate, with both false positives and insufficient coverage.)

  3. The Church does have web filtering on it's networks based on Cisco hardware that is managed by the IT group at Church headquarters. In the corporate offices, the filtering is just about what you would expect in any professional offices.

  4. Undoubtedly the church headquarters uses WebSense (made by Cisco:, one of the most popular filtering softwares in the US. It is customizable and the filter itself is created manually by ratings systems. Additionally, users can request a site be removed from the filtering list.

  5. I heard the filtering may still be the old Cerberian, that's at least what it was in 2003 during early deployment of the Internet to Family History Centers. That company was in Draper and it is still there but as a wholly-owned office of Blue Coat Systems. Blue Coat Systems bought them in 2004 and has steadily improved the ratings and so forth, and a recent note on the BYU-Idaho website says they use it and it appears based on that same note that it is also still used at the Church level, and it is known to work with almost any other server system.

    Home users will recognize this as being the free 'K9 Web Protection'.

    Otherwise I don't really know whether or not they do but indications are that they still use Blue Coat Web Filter, but this is the absolute best filter out there, I use K9 myself and find it very effective in dealing with porn and other web nasties, including spyware as the company actively hunts spyware sites down.