In recent years, Web sites like The New York Times, Yahoo! and YouTube have been frequently blocked in countries such as China, Iran, and United Arab Emirates for political and moral reasons. But Web site blocking is also commonplace in the United States in the name of security (the U.S. Marines recently banned social networking sites and the White House bans Twitter), child protection, and workplace productivity. It’s possible that even if your Web site is nonoffensive, it will get swept up into the filter as well. What do you do when this happens?
The first thing to understand about Internet filtering products is that they don’t just filter content that everyone agrees is questionable. These products also filter sites considered to be time-wasters for employees, like message boards, webmail, blogging tools, social networks, and photo and video sharing sites. Sites seen as security threats and Web sites containing keywords that fall under suspect categories can also be banned. (A women’s health site, for example, might have a few keywords in common with adult Web sites or an art site might have nude imagery.)
It can be difficult to tell if your site has been banned unless customers or readers tell you and, in the best case scenario, forward you their error/blocking message so you can tell which company has blocked you. If that’s the case, you can try to visit the filter’s manufacturer’s site to plead your case.
If you don’t get contacted by a blocked visitor but notice a significant drop in traffic, you can attempt your own investigation by visiting the larger filtering companies’ Web sites to see if your site has been snared and under which category. For example, Marshal8e6 software categorizes 60 million sites in 61 categories, which administrators of the software can then use to filter Internet traffic at their company. Certain categories, like “adult and nudity,” “anonymizers and remote access,” “messaging and communications,” “spam, spyware, and phishing,” and “free time and entertainment,” are selected as default options. (See all categories by visiting Marshal8e6’s “Knowledge Base” and look up your Web site by visiting its support page.)
If you find out that a specific company or government agency has blocked your Web site and you have a legitimate business relationship with its employees, you can ask them to intervene with their network administrator or you can contact the IT department yourself. Internet filtering software allows administrators to whitelist sites that are blanket-banned by the product.
If you run a business-service Web site that’s never been filtered, it’s likely you’ll never run into the problem. But if your site’s content naturally falls into the don’t-look-at-this-at-work category — like gaming, social networking, adult content, gambling, or general gossip and entertainment — there likely isn’t much you can do to avoid such blocking. After all, as a fellow business owner, you can understand why a company may not want its employees enjoying your pop culture musings on company time.
But if your content is in a gray area that could or could not be construed as inappropriate at work, you can take some measures to avoid filtering, such as having no adult content of any nature, no cussing, and no nudity (including artistic nudity — even Michelangelo’s David can set off Web alarms). Is this self-censorship? Yes, it may be, but it just matters what’s more important to you: avoiding filters and allowing access to your site across all networks or avoiding self-censorship.
One technical aspect that can save you headaches is to avoid hosting any blogs or content on outside sites, like Blogspot.com or Flickr.com. These sites are often indiscriminately banned by both filtering sites and foreign governments. Always host your own content, even if it means working a little harder when you’re testing the waters on a new blog.
Finally, what can you do about foreign countries banning your Web site? Not a whole lot. There are Web sites where you can check to see if your site is banned in China, like WebSitePulse, but the sites that do get restored in such countries are likely reinstated as a result of media outrage and coverage. Luckily for the citizens of such nations (and employees in filtered workplaces and teenagers at school), there’s a multitude of information on the Internet on how to get around such blocks — more so, in fact, than information on how to get off of such blocked lists.