Lawsuit Reveals How Government’s Web Filtering Contractors Can Jeopardize Free Speech

Public Citizen’s Website Was Blocked as ‘Adult/Mature’ Content by U.S. Department of Education’s Web Filtering Service; Other Advocacy Groups’ Sites May Be Blocked at Other Federal Agencies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As a result of litigation, Public Citizen’s website is no longer blocked on the U.S. Department of Education’s Wi-Fi and employee internet networks, and the organization today dropped its First Amendment lawsuit against the federal agency.

The litigation revealed the bizarre reason that access to citizen.org was blocked at the department: The agency’s web filtering service provider Fortinet classifies the websites of “advocacy organizations” as “adult/mature,” along with websites devoted to pornography and gambling. Because the department asked the web filtering service to block “adult/mature” content, the service blocked the websites of advocacy organizations, such as Public Citizen, as well. The department has informed Public Citizen that it has adjusted its web filter so that advocacy organizations will no longer be blocked on its networks.

“Federal agencies understandably may want to block access to material inappropriate for a workplace environment,” said Nandan Joshi, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “But when an agency blocks access to the websites of advocacy organizations, it violates the First Amendment right of the organization to speak and of people seeking to visit the websites to access that speech.”

Because Fortinet markets its services to federal agencies, Public Citizen urged Fortinet to remove the “advocacy organizations” subcategory from the “adult/mature” category. Fortinet did not do so. As a result, other federal agencies that use the company’s web filtering service may still be violating the First Amendment by blocking access to advocacy groups’ websites.

“This case highlights the increasing control of technology companies over what information Americans see and hear,” said Joshi. “But when the government is involved, officials have an obligation to uphold the Constitution and cannot turn a blind eye by outsourcing their responsibility to private contractors. Instead, they must engage in continuous, vigorous oversight over their operations to maintain compliance with constitutional requirements.”

Public Citizen encourages internet security personnel at other agencies – particularly those that use Fortinet’s web filtering services – to review their web filtering settings and make any changes needed to ensure compliance with the First Amendment.

Public Citizen sued the department on April 9 after learning that users attempting to access Public Citizen’s website though the department’s internal and guest networks received a message that access was “in violation of your internet usage policy” and “Category: Advocacy Organization.”

Read the lawsuit here.

Read Public Citizen’s letter to Fortinet here.