ResearchFree Expression Online

Blue Coat Errors Sites Miscategorized as “Pornography”

As of this writing, the websites of the New Braunfels Republican Women, the Kiddie Kollege Nursery School, the Freemasons’ District Grand Lodge of East Africa, the Weston Community Children’s Association, and the Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario are all categorized as “pornography” by Blue Coat Internet blocking software. Blue Coat Systems provides a lookup form that you can use to see how their system categorizes a website; you can see the screen captures for the categorizations of the above-listed sites hereherehere, here, and here. (The complete list of miscategorized sites that we found, is listed at the end of this report. Unless otherwise specified, all sites mentioned in this report, are currently classified by Blue Coat as “pornography.”)

Blue Coat Systems is based in Sunnyvale, California and manufactures a range of Internet filtering products, often used in schools and workplaces. On any network where the software is installed and configured to block sites categorized as “pornography,” users will be denied access to such sites.

The company was previously the subject of an in-depth report published by the Citizen Lab in January 2013, describing the use of Blue Coat devices in Syria and Burma for mandatory country-wide Internet censorship. Several dozen other Blue Coat installations were found in 19 “countries of interest” that were known to have a history of Internet censorship and human rights violations, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. As discussed in the report, it is not currently against US law for American companies to sell censorship software to foreign governments, although the practice is controversial. However, the use of the filtering appliances on Syrian networks prompted concerns from the US Department of Commerce about whether Blue Coat had sold those devices in violation of U.S. sanctions against Syria. Blue Coat claimed that the products had been bought by an entity in Dubai and re-sold to ISPs in Syria without Blue Coat’s knowledge.

Citizen Lab’s report concluded by posing several questions to Blue Coat, such as: “What human rights policy commitments and due diligence measures does Blue Coat Systems have in place concerning the development and sales of its products and services?” The report stated: “We commit to publishing in full Blue Coat System’s reply.” Citizen Lab did not receive a response from the company.

Compared to the practice of selling “censorware” to foreign governments with poor human rights records, there has been far less controversy over the simple miscategorization of websites as “pornography” by Internet blocking companies. There have been no public reports to date on sites that have been miscategorized by Blue Coat specifically, although there have been reports about other products, such as Citizen Lab’s post in November 2013 about sites miscategorized by SmartFilter. (As discussed below, a few sites actually showed up on both lists—miscategorized as “pornography” by both Blue Coat and SmartFilter—for reasons that are not clear.)

Some of the entities whose websites were classified as “pornography,” such as the Kiddie Kollege Nursery School, or the Lotus Valley Public School of Haryana, India, would likely be scandalized if their customers or the public came to believe, as a result of misclassification by Blue Coat, that their websites really were hosting “pornography.” (In the case of other miscategorized websites such as, the proprietors would most likely be bemused by error.)

As with the SmartFilter report, we tested a large number of URLs against Blue Coat’s filtering system using a combination of ad hoc spidering and URL lists. After identifying a subset of URLs classified by Blue Coat as “pornography,” we reviewed the site contents to identify classifications that appeared to be errors. Some were obvious errors, and others were “borderline cases,” where the site contained no true pornography but it is plausible that a reviewer might have mistakenly applied the label after finding the site’s contents to be “inappropriate.” Blue Coat’s site lookup form gives their working definition of “pornography:”

Sites that contain sexually explicit material for the purpose of arousing a sexual or prurient interest.

None of the sites we counted as “errors,” contained any material that we could find which fit that definition.

While Blue Coat’s site lookup form does not give a reason for the categorization of particular sites, there were some sites for which we could infer a possible reason for the miscategorization. Only one site in our list,, contained an obvious keyword (“porn”) in the domain name which would have likely caused the site to be misclassified. A few other sites such as (“women”) and (“dicks”) contained keywords which may have triggered the “pornography” categorization. (The latter site does in fact reference the humorous use of the word “dick,” although it is also the site owner’s first name.) Several other sites in our list contained content on the front page that may have caused Blue Coat’s system to categorize the site as “pornography:” This website quotes these statistics on the front page: “A growing variety of sexual behaviour is being practiced by teens 15- to 19-year-old, a study by Urban Institute shows:- 53% admit to masturbating.
– 49% have participated in oral sex.
– 39% have given oral sex.
– 11% have had anal sex.
– Kids perceive oral and anal sex as ‘not really sex’ and often as part of abstinence.” Carolyn Gargaro’s website, “Home of a Conservative Female,” has a link to pages of “cam” (i.e. webcam) photos. Webcam photos are so commonly found on pornographic websites that the term “cam” may have triggered a keyword filter, although Gargaro’s photos are exclusively non-pornographic pictures of her sitting at her desk. The Kohnke family home page features family photos, including a link labeled “new kid pics,” which a keyword filter may have assumed referred to pornography. The home page New Braunfels Republican Women may have been miscategorized because of the word ‘women’ in the title. (This site, in fact, was also categorized by SmartFilter as ‘pornography.’) This site advocates abstinence for teenagers, and contains numerous instances of the words “sex” and “oral sex,” mostly in close proximity of the word “teen.” (However, we also note that the same website is reachable by the URL, and this URL is categorized by Blue Coat (accurately) as “Charitable Organizations and Sex Education.” This counts as evidence against the notion that the URL was blacklisted solely because of the keywords on the front page. On the other hand, it is possible that Blue Coat’s crawler visited the URLs and at different times, and in the interim had changed its threshold for categorized a site as “pornography,” which could possibly lead to one URL being categorized as “pornography” but not the other.) This website is titled “Porn Recovery UK” and is categorized by Blue Coat as “pornography.” (On the other hand, the actual website, which appears to be run by the same organization but contains different content, is categorized by Blue Coat as “health.”) advertises itself as a maker of emulators for “dongles.” (The word “dongle,” which appears twenty-two times on the homepage, has never actually entered popular usage as anatomical slang, but the suggestiveness of the word has often been employed for humour.)

Meanwhile, there are a few sites in our sample categorized by Blue Coat as “pornography”, whose content is not pornographic, but may have been considered sufficiently “questionable” that it’s plausible that a human reviewer may have miscategorized it: According to the site, “Dicks of America is an organization dedicated to making Dick the most beloved name in America – if not the world! The name Dick has become a four-letter-word that also refers to a very familiar part of the male anatomy. Why, it’s enough to get a Dick down!” A human reviewer, believing the site content to be not “appropriate” for work, could have hastily classified it as “pornography.” The website, “Fuck Off, I’m Busy,” is intended as a link to send to friends to indicate one wants to be left along. Again, not pornographic. The website, “Mothers Against Peeing Standing Up,” contains a stick figure of a male urinating, but even the stick figure doesn’t have a visible penis. The website is subtitled “the pain & ecstasy of learning,” and the first photo on the page is of a pair of boots (paired with a blog post titled “Spanish Boot Camp”). It is plausible that a person making a very quick glance at the site (perhaps under pressure to review a large number of sites at once) might have made the connection between “pain & ecstasy” and dominatrix boots, and classified the website as sexually explicit. The website is described as “an artist collective of four awesome girls.” The front page contains a graphic showing cartoon caricatures of the four authors. Again, an overworked human reviewer might have made a very cursory glance at the page contents and believed the image to be too suggestive or indicative of anime pornography.  This safe sex website does contain blog posts on somewhat prurient topics such as “Safe Sex with Expensive London Escorts” (and some phrases such as “expensive London escort girls” are even linked to real escort websites, which may be part of a pay-for-link arrangement). However, the site itself still contains no pornography and apparently not even any nudity (a picture on the front page, emphasizing condom usage, shows a condom being fitted over a sausage). This art collective website has some photos of nearly nude models, but in the photos we reviewed, no models were actually nude and the photos were in any case not sexually explicit.

It would be natural to assume that, in the cases of the sites listed above, the reason they were mistakenly blocked as “pornography” by Blue Coat was either because of the keywords that appear on the page or in the domain name, or because of their “borderline” content. Certainly out of the sites that we found to be blocked in error, a high proportion of them contain “borderline” content and probable-trigger keywords, higher than would be expected if we had selected sites from the web at random.

On the other hand, many other websites such as Singing Bowls of Tuscon ShambhalaThe Sumter Community Concert Band, and Reunion Ministries, are also categorized by Blue Coat as “pornography” despite having no pornographic content and no apparent keywords or content that could have triggered even an accidental misclassification as “porn.”

So, it is possible that a certain number of sites are wrongly blocked by Blue Coat as a result of some pseudo-random process, and a certain number of those sites will just happen to have keywords or questionable content on them—but the keywords and the content may not be the cause of the blocking. (It is impossible to know for sure, since Blue Coat’s lookup form does not give reasons for a site’s classification.)

A small number of sites in our sample were miscategorized by both SmartFilter and Blue Coat as “pornography.” They are: A site promoting sailing in the Baltic Sea. A youth orchestra featuring musicians from Israel, Palestine, and various Arab countries. The International Sambo Federation. Max Kade Language House at the University of Virginia for students studying German. The Moriah School, a Jewish boarding school in New Jersey. The New Braunfels Republican Women, of New Braunfels, Texas. A program promoting summer programs in Iran for Iranian-Americans. Reunion Ministries, a religious non-profit organization offering counselling and healing services.

The fact that these sites are miscategorized by both products is something of a mystery. If either SmartFilter or Blue Coat were simply miscategorizing a random subset of non-pornographic websites as “pornography,” then we would expect the overlap to be much smaller. (Out of roughly 150 websites listed in each report, eight were also miscategorized by the other product, or about six percent. But despite all the errors made by both products, the proportion of non-pornographic websites that either product categorizes as “pornography” is generally far less than six percent. So the high overlap appears to be due to something other than chance.) However, there appears to be no common factors that would cause these websites to have a greater-than-average chance of being miscategorized as “pornography.” None of them contain any questionable content or keywords likely to trigger a “pornography” categorization (except possibly for the “New Braunfels Republican Women”).

The sampling of sites that we found to be incorrectly classified as “pornography” by Blue Coat, is below. Each site is listed together with a link (labeled “sc”) to a screen capture showing the site classified as “pornography” on Blue Coat’s lookup form. The classifications are current as of this writing; Blue Coat may change the categorization of these sites in the future. (sc) A Chinese gaming platform company. (sc) A blog by Hilary Bernstein about making environmentally conscious decisions in a context of religious belief. (sc) A charitable foundation run by the Acer computer company. (sc) A German-language site campaigning against child pornography. (sc) A Border Terrier club in Fairhope, Alabama. (sc) An auto parts and service company in Mexico. (sc) A Colorado-based community blog promoting healthy living through wilderness activities. (sc) A film-making collective in Los Angeles. (Interestingly, several other domains in our sample also redirect to this site, all of which were also categorized by Blue Coat as “pornography”: (sc), (sc), (sc), (sc), (sc), and
Since we tested only a small subset of all domains, we can infer that there are probably many other domains which also redirect to and which are also categorized as “pornography.”) (sc) An activist site promoting low-power FM radio in the US. (sc) “Money and investment,” a German-language investment blog. (“Anlage” is the German word for “investment.”) (sc) A Serbian company specializing in aquarium decoration. (sc) A not-for-profit directory of online gambling links. (We did not vet the links to see if they were legal, but the site contains no pornographic content.) (sc) A French website creation and design organization. (sc) The Australian Tamil Management Service, an association of professionals from Australia and Sri Lanka providing management services. (sc) A blog written by a South Florida Ph.D. student. (sc) A site promoting sailing in the Baltic Sea. (sc) A non-profit Filipino LGBTQ organization in Los Angeles. (The organization is comprised of adult members but there is apparently no “adult material” on the website.) (sc) A youth orchestra featuring musicians from Israel, Palestine, and various Arab countries. (sc) A site documenting the remodeling of a cabin on the Oregon coast. (sc) An organization promoting safe living for senior citizens living at home. (sc) A site promoting housing within the United Arab Emirates. (sc) A UK-based site selling spiritually-themed gifts and keepsakes. (sc) A site selling nylon stockings. (Female models appear modeling the nylons, but the images are not pornographic.) (sc) A Portland, Oregon-based men’s performing group specializing in the British style of traditional Morris dancers. (sc) An organization fighting poverty in Mexico. (sc) A site created by Community Foundation of the Ozarks to promote giving circles in which networks of friends can pool their resources for charitable causes. (sc) A travel site about civil war reenactments and related tourist information. (sc) A site promoting an alien Halloween prop made by Blackwell Oddities. (sc) A site publishing tips and tricks for troubleshooting computer problems. (sc) A site memorializing the author’s husband Cory and chronicling her family life after his passing. (sc) A South Africa-based foundation promoting self-esteem programs for children between six and thirteen. (sc) A Spanish-language art gallery website. (sc) The personal website of a Berkeley computer science student.
htt (sc) A guide to making money online through affiliate programs. (We didn’t verify whether the programs were legal or suspicious, but the page did not contain any pornographic content.) (sc) College Success Foundation, a foundation promoting scholarships to low-income students. (sc) “Virtual Climate Change Technology Transfer Center” is an information site about climate change hosted by Bolivian Catholic University. (sc) A personal blog including a gallery of travel photos. (sc) The District Grand Lodge of East Africa, a Freemason lodge undertaking charitable projects in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. (sc) A humorous site “dedicated to making Dick the most beloved name in America – if not the world.” (sc) A multiplayer online game involving competition against other national leaders in a simulated global space. (sc) A blog about the learning process, subtitled “The pain & ecstasy of learning.” (sc) The party of the Democratic Left in Italy. (sc) A blog (now neglected for several years) about ecology and sustainability. (sc) “Especially Captivating Photos” is the professional website of photographers Christine Taylor and Michael Degregoris. (sc) A French web hosting company. (sc) “The Eastern Suburbs Law Society” is a professional association of lawyers in Sydney, Australia. (sc) “His Banner Is Love Crusades” is a website of the evangelists Herman and Audrey Tranter (sc) A web hosting company. (sc) A non-profit raising awareness of poverty and human trafficking in the Himalayan mountain region. (sc) Website of a 540-acre outdoor recreation farm in New Hampshire. (sc) The German-language site of the volunteer firefighter department of the Austrian town of
Enzesfeld-Lindabrunn. (sc) Website for the International Sambo Federation. (sc) The Frazier History Museum, showcasing artifacts owned by Napoleon. (sc) A non-profit combatting human trafficking in the state of Florida. (sc) “Fuck off, I’m busy!!” Not pornographic. (sc) A non-profit combatting teen pregnancy and teen substance abuse. (sc) An artist collective of four women. The cartoon graphic on the front page features only very slightly suggestive caricatures of the four members, but nothing that could be considered pornographic. (sc) Website of a comedy troupe that does live performances of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. (The website does say the show is 17+ but the content is not pornographic, not even in the picture gallery.) (sc) A non-profit advocating for women’s rights in The Gambia. (sc) The personal website of Carolyn Gargaro. (sc) Max Kade Language House at the University of Virginia for students studying German. (sc) Get Help Get Active is a charity aiming to help people “suffering from a mind-based habit of low self-exertion.” (This site was categorized as “Pornography” when we first checked it on December 29, 2013, but had been re-categorized as “Adult/Mature Content” when we re-checked it for the screen capture on February 12, 2014—even though neither category makes sense for the site’s content.) (sc) A charity supporting corrective surgery for children born with cleft lip and palate in Ghana. (sc) A site about the Grendel character from Beowulf, along with personal home pages of the site owners. (sc) Ground Zero, personal home page of a computer programmer in Boulder, Colorado. (sc) The governing organization for amateur hockey leagues in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Territory in Canada. (sc) A club for Honda enthusiasts in Korea.
A free tutorial site with advice on taking better photographs. (sc) The International Association of Traditional Wing Chun, dedicated to practice of Wing Chun martial arts. (sc) A memorial site for New-York-based poet, photographer, and filmmaker Ira Cohen. (The
alternate url is also categorized as “Pornography”.) (sc) A non-profit working to reduce teen pregnancy and abuse among teenage girls in Anderson, South Carolina. (sc) The Kiddie Kollege Nursery School of Patchogue, New York. (sc) Personal website of the Kohnke family.
http://www.L37.ORG (sc) A url-shortening service. (sc) The Lakehill Soccer Association of Victoria, British Columbia. (sc) The website of Dr. Jürgen Lieberoth, with samples of his artwork (none of which appear to be pornographic). (sc) A French organization providing insurance services to associations and individuals. (sc) The Lotus Valley Public School in Haryana, India. (sc) Website of Lucie, a six-meter sailing ship used in sailing competitions. (sc) A collection of articles related to computer security. (sc) A company marketing tartan-pattern boxer shorts. (sc) Mothers Against Peeing Standing Up, a humour site advocating for men to sit down while
urinating so their mothers and wives do not have to clean up the mess. (sc) A Turkish directory of online newspapers and magazines (none of which appear to be
pornographic). (sc) A blog with news and links related to men’s rights activism in different countries. (sc) A blog about home improvement and repair. (sc) The Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario. (sc) The personal and professional homepage of photographer Milda J. Nordbø. (sc) The Moriah School, a Jewish boarding school in Bergen County, New Jersey. (sc) The Mount Lowe Preservation Society, a non-profit working to preserve history and artifacts related to the Mount Lowe Railway in California. (sc) The professional consulting page of photographer Michael Smith. (sc) New Braunfels Republican Women of New Braunfels, Texas. (sc) A software reverse-engineering firm specializing in making software copies of hardware keys, or ‘dongles.’ (sc) The NADRA Employees Welfare Association of Pakistan, for employees of the Pakistani National Database and Registration Authority. (sc) A project cataloguing the music and poetry of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. (sc) The Nuclear Weapons Law Association Inc., a non-profit formed by attorneys concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (sc) A Paraguay-based non-profit focused on animal welfare, Indian tribe rights, and women’s rights in the region. (sc) A project of the Beacon Council Foundation, focused on charitable activities in Miami-Dade County, Florida. (sc) The O Pescador restaurant in Brazil.
The website of jeweler and diamond wholesaler Bernice Skoro. (sc) Ovid Union Cemetery in Ovid, New York. (sc): NBG Drafting & Design, a patent and trademark drawing company. (sc) An experimental visual and performance art project. Some of the photos show nearly naked models (e.g.,!occupations/c1xdu) but no nudity that we could find and certainly nothing pornographic under the usual definition. (sc): A photo blog documenting a traveler’s adventures in South Africa, the Galapagos, and other regions. (sc) A German-language website featuring self-hypnosis CDs by the hypnotist Peter White. (sc) A web design and hosting firm. (Their website lists an eclectic mix of content hosted there, although the site hasn’t been updated since 2003.) (sc) A Serbian wine and spirits vendor (“Podrum” is the Serbian word for “basement”). (sc): An online media analysis firm. (sc) The Press Club of New Orleans, founded in 1957.
http://www.PS29.ORG (sc) The Socialist Party of the French region of Finistère. (sc) A directory of psoriasis-related charity websites. (sc) A non-profit advocating abstinence for teens. (sc) “People Who Enjoy Eating Tasty Animals,” a parody of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.
http://www.PX3.ORG (sc): A game design studio in Thailand. (sc) A program promoting summer programs in Iran for Iranian-Americans. (sc) A site containing “news from around the world with humorous undertones.” (sc) Reunion Ministries, a religious non-profit organization offering counselling and healing services. (sc) The Rocketpack Writing Project, featuring humor, satire, and creative writing by multiple authors. (sc) An informational site about safe sex practices. (sc) The Structural Biology Industrial Platform, a biotechnology information site. (sc) The South Carolina Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Association. (sc) Semana Santa Popayan, about the traditions of religious Holy Week in Colombia. (sc): The travel and photo blog of photographer Guillaume Brasseur. (sc) A blog advocating for solar and other renewable forms of energy. (sc): A site about speleology (cave exploration) in Romania. (sc) Website of an annual airshow held in Galveston, Texas. (sc) A religious support group for pregnant women and single mothers under twenty-three. (sc) The Sumter Community Concert Band in South Carolina. (sc) A Polish search engine optimization (SEO) firm. (sc) A directory of Tamil-owned businesses in the UK. (sc) An organization connecting Brahmins (traditional Hindu societies) in different countries. (sc) A project aimed at improving relationships between fathers and daughters. (sc) A non-profit providing economic opportunities for low-income women in developing countries. (sc) Website of Porn Recovery UK, an organization combatting pornography addiction. (sc) Official website of horror author Tim Miller. (sc) A satirical “news” site, which includes some off-color articles like “New Pope initiated with the sacrifice of 13 boys!” but no pornography. (sc) Singing Bowls of Tuscon Shambhala, selling Tibetan singing bowls in Tuscon. (sc) A countercultural art and literary site. (sc) The Wallach Family website. (sc) An organization offering airborne rides on historical World War II fighter airplanes. This website is also categorized by Blue Coat as “Pornography” under its alternate URLs (sc) and (sc). (sc) The Weston Community Children’s Association. (sc) The Windom Youth Hockey Program in Windom, Minnesota. (sc) The portfolio of photographer Scott Witscher.

In our testing, we also found some sites such as, the International All-round Weightlifting Association, which appeared to have been hacked to insert sexually explicit text in a sidebar (although most of the site’s original content was also left intact). We did not count such sites as “incorrectly classified” when Blue Coat listed them as “pornography,” due to the presence of the sexually explicit text. However, we believe the best practice on Blue Coat’s part would have been to:

1) give the sites a special classification indicating that the site appeared to have been hacked temporarily;

2) notify the site owners where possible; and

3) re-check the site periodically to see if the problem had been fixed and the text had been removed. In cases where we could find contact information for the sites in question, we sent them a message indicating that they had been hacked.

Our testing indicated that these non-pornographic websites, despite being classified as “pornography,” were not generally blocked in countries that we had found to be using Blue Coat Internet censorship appliances. As far as we can tell, the United Arab Emirates, as mentioned in our previous report on SmartFilter, is using Blue Coat’s hardware and software, but filtering websites on SmartFilter’s list. (Therefore, the only sites in our list above that were blocked in the United Arab Emirates are the sites that are also categorized as “pornography” in SmartFilter’s database.)

However, as a follow-up to our post about the number of sites miscategorized by SmartFilter, our tests with Blue Coat show that this is not a problem limited to a single product. We should be skeptical of any company’s claims that they are able to categorize much of the web accurately, or that their rate of “collateral damage” is very low.


The author thanks Citizen Lab for their support of this project and for their feedback and assistance during the research process.