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Dear Blockers:


Jonathan Rees charged, in the last issue of themail, that the DC government was blocking government employees’ access to his web site on government computers. I asked whether anyone could confirm this, and I want to thank the DC employees — whose identities I won’t reveal in order to protect them from likely retribution — who tried it and who indeed got a blocking message, “Access to this web page has been restricted,” that they forwarded to me.


Dorothy and I decided to find out what the government’s justification was for blocking this site. Dorothy called the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), to see whether the government had any Internet usage policies aside from those listed on its web site, http://octo.dc.gov/cwp/view,a,1302,q,579925.asp. She was told that OCTO would not accept a verbal question, and that the question had to be submitted in writing. I submitted the question in an E-mail to OCTO’s press office, and received a reply that the question had been given to the office’s general counsel and Freedom of Information officer. Soon afterwards, I received a second reply from the FOIA officer, saying that she was treating the question as a FOIA request and that it would take up to fifteen business days — three weeks — to answer.


Because of several similar incidents recently, Dorothy and I were just sick and tired of the Fenty administration’s policy of abusing the FOIA law to delay and deny the release of information that should be publicly released without any question or delay. So Dorothy called Thorn Pozen, the District’s Ethics and FOIA counselor for the District, to complain strongly. I wrote another E-mail to OCTO’s FOIA officer, asking for her legal justification for requiring a FOIA request to release a policy statement. Without much delay, I got an answer.


The government’s usage policy is fully stated on the web page that I linked to above; there is no further or more detailed elaboration. DC government allows its employees to use their work computers for a moderate amount of personal use, as long as that use doesn’t interfere with either their work duties or the government’s computer network. Employees are restricted from sending E-mail messages or maintaining web sites that violate any federal or local laws, that advertise or promote private business enterprises, or that have religious or political purposes outside the users’ governmental duties. But employees are not forbidden to access web sites that have commercial, religious, or political purposes. They can visit web sites run by stores, churches, political parties, political candidates, or political commentators. The government uses commercial WebSense software to censor the Internet, but the only categories that it blocks, according to OCTO’s general counsel, are two overlapping ones: “adult content” and “sex.”


Rees’ web site is deliberately rude and crude, highly critical of the Fenty administration and of several members of the city council, but it is politically oriented, not sexual, pornographic, or obscene. So what justification does the government have to block it? As an employer, the government would have the right to block its employees’ access to all political web sites if it wished, but its blocking would have to be viewpoint neutral. It can’t allow employees to see Democratic Party political sites, but block Republican ones; it can’t allow sites that it determines support the Fenty administration, but block anti-Fenty ones. One correspondent, who wants to remain anonymous, wrote me that he considers Rees’ web site to be pornographic. I wrote that I would confirm that charge if he could substantiate it, but all he was able to point to was a joking (bad joke, but joking, nevertheless) link to a YouTube video. The still from the video on Rees’ site probably couldn’t be published in The Washington Times, but it would pass the Washington Post’s editorial standards. So there are two follow-up questions that I’ll ask OCTO tomorrow: given the government’s policy as stated on OCTO’s web site and restated by its general counsel, what justification does the DC government have for blocking Rees’ web site; and what other web sites does it block that are predominantly composed of political content rather than “adult” or sexual content?


Gary Imhoff


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