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7/6/2006
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Blogs Blocked In Bluegrass State

Kentucky officials say they blocked content access for government employees to improve productivity, but critics contend that free speech rights are threatened.

A blog ban has been kicking up dust in the bluegrass state, where government employees are cut off from Internet content, including some that has criticized their governor.

The home of the derby and Mint Julips is now the center of a national debate over what Internet content employees should be able to access. In Kentucky, however, the argument has taken on political tones.

Government officials have maintained that they have blocked content to improve productivity, but critics contend that free speech rights are threatened. They claim the state is discriminating against some forms of leisure Web surfing and not others and should not be able to do so because it is a public entity, not a private employer.

In June, the state blocked access to Bluegrassreport.org after bloggers and campaign manager Mark Nickolas criticized the state's Republican administration in a New York Times article. State officials later lifted a block on a free market Web site, saying it contained information relevant to state policy.

State leaders said the ban targeted blogs and pornography, but they also blocked access to online Bible study groups.

Now, Nickolas is weighing legal options and critics are revealing more and more sites that are blocked, as well as frivolous ones featuring non-work related content like The Simpsons, which are still allowed.

At the same time, the government is going through its "blacklist" to remove and justify the Web sites it contains.

Nickolas explained on his Web site and in a column that the issue is not about government employees' Web access on the job, it's about government deciding what constitutes legitimate news and a legitimate viewpoint.

"If government is required to uphold the constitutional guarantees of a free press, isn't it a fundamental conflict if it gets to decide what constitutes the press in the first place," he asked.

Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary John Farris, who also serves as the state's chief information officer, has now donned a third hat " that of guest columnist in local newspapers, where he defends the state's actions regarding Internet use.

Citing a Gartner Group report, Farris points to reports that Americans squander up to 40 percent of their daily productivity with Web surfing. He also airs some of the state's dirty laundry, including an audit in 2003 that showed that the state's transportation department workers accessed pornographic Web sites 6,000 times on state computers during four days of monitoring.

Farris further defends against charges of censorship and First Amendment violations by explaining that the audit also uncovered piracy through the transportation department's computer system. In that case, French hackers were to blame, according to Farris. The state's "Acceptable Use Policy" also prohibits misuse of state computers. The state installed Webwasher, an anti-hacking, anti-virus e-mail and Internet filter to help enforce the policy. Farris said that he requested a report soon after entering his current position on June 8 and discovered massive use among employees for entertainment purposes. He decided to have Webwasher block several categories, including entertainment and blogs, he said.

"Since that time, many Web sites have claimed that they have been individually singled-our or unfairly targeted," he said in his written statement. "I assure you this is not the case. Admittedly, the software-based categorical blocking of Web sites is not a perfect science. In fact, because of the large amount of "gray area" that comes with blocking of Internet access, we have asked the software vendor to categorize sites that were not initially identified."

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