NEW YORK — If keeping dairy products separate from meat sounds like a pain, try cultivating a “morally kosher atmosphere” on the internet. That’s the challenge faced by Orthodox Jews, who recognize the internet’s place in the business world but shudder at the “filth” found online.
That paradox brought more than 40,000 men from New York’s Orthodox Jewish community to an anti-internet rally Sunday at Citi Field to protest the “scourge of the internet,” the latest skirmish in the seemingly never-ending battle to keep the unclean horrors of the modern world at bay.
“The internet has a few personalities,” said Emkanah Schwartz, who attended Sunday’s Anti-Internet Rally here and said he’s concerned about the ways the web could harm his children and grandchildren. “Economically, technologically, it’s a boon. Socially, it’s a monster. So it’s not a question about doing away with the internet — we won’t. We can’t. And there’s no need to. There just has to be some form of control.”
But the rally, greeted with scorn by many on the internet, was also seen by some in the community as a smokescreen for a more insidious agenda — preventing unsavory and unfavorable news about powerful rabbis from reaching the community.
Billed as a male-only anti-internet rally, the gathering actually centered on filtering software that can keep out unwanted web content — and, in some cases, give religious leaders total control over the flow of online information.
This method of mass filtration drew protest during the Citi Field gathering from past and current members of the Orthodox community, who say the rally’s emphasis on pornography and the dangers of the internet is an excuse to enable mass censorship in Orthodox communities — specifically censorship of news and blog posts containing accusations of misconduct against Orthodox rabbis.
“Ultimately, the reason why this protest was organized was not because of the great threat to which the internet exposes the pious, but rather because of the great threat that freedom of information poses to the power of the rabbinic establishment,” said Daniel Sieradski, founder of the blog Jewschool.com and the Occupy Judaism movement.
Across the street from Citi Field on 126th, a group called The Internet Is Not the Problem protested the rally, claiming the filtration systems were another way to deflect reporting of child-molestation charges within the Orthodox community.
“I think the use of pornography is an excuse for censorship,” said Howard Schoenfeld, a member of the Orthodox community who attended the rally — not in the traditional black jacket, pants and top hat, but in jeans, a collared polo shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses to obscure his identity. Rosenthal said communities using JNet, an ISP catering to the Orthodox community, will often switch from using a blacklist to block certain sites to a white list that blocks the whole internet and only allows a list of pre-approved sites.
Porn Isn’t the Only Problem
From the Orthodox point of view, specifically among the Hasidic and Litvish factions, no form of pornography is acceptable. But the internet’s moral threats to the Orthodox community extend beyond pornography to entertainment and news websites and even to pictures of individuals revealing skin other than the face. (That’s not even taking into account the decidedly unkosherly named I Can Haz Cheezburger site.)
“If a person sees bad things, it will affect his essence,” said Yossi Schwartz, 18, a Brooklyn resident who attended the rally. “Therefore we are very concerned about people watching bad things and that’s why we have this gathering.”
Members of the Orthodox community at the rally said they use a variety of internet filtration and surveillance systems to clamp down on unwanted content. Such software includes Covenant Eyes, which is promoted for use primarily within Christian communities, and K9 Web Protection, a system designed by U.S. software company Blue Coat, which was recently investigated for allegations of violating trade sanctions by distributing the software to the Syrian government toenable internet censorship.
“Covenant Eyes raids your browsing history and sends a report to someone else — it could be to your wife, to your mother, to your sister,” said 21-year-old Shmuel Fruchpzweig, who has the porn-busting spyware on his cellphone. “If it’s something you’d be embarrassed that other people would see, it’s probably not something you should do yourself.”
Fruchpzweig said he was more concerned about children’s use of the internet than his own browsing habits. “These days, one click of a button and a little curiosity could do a lot of harm.”
RnD Software is attempting to cater specifically to the needs of individual Orthodox communities. Founder and CEO Zelig Rosenthal claims his ISP company JNet is “the primary filtering solution in the [Orthodox] community,” with a user base of 40,000 that he expects to expand as a result of the rally.
JNet works by rating the content of each individual web page in real time and implementing blocks based on the content. Users are able to set filters for different categories (such as pornographic material, entertainment, news media and social networking) to a numerical threshold. If a user tries to go to a page that Jnet’s algorithm detects has passed the threshold, the page will be blocked.
Using a link-testing function on JNet’s Livigent content filter, you can get an idea of how the threshold system would work: Entering the URL of Wikipedia’s “Sex” page results in a 19 percent “adult content” rating, whereas the “Sexual Intercourse” page garners a 60 percent. If someone were using the system with a 30 percent threshold for adult content, they would be able to view the former but not the latter.
An image-obscuring system built into Livigent calculates the amount of flesh in an image and either blocks the image with a tool called White Out, or turns the skin a different color.
This tool certainly won’t deter any closet Na’vi fetishists, but it will provide an indicator of what’s unwholesome from the perspective of the rabbis. Rosenthal said the religious teachers typically team up with an Orthodox tech team to describe situations of inappropriate viewing material. The tech team then translates the rabbis’ interpretations into filtration limitations, which can be set for communities of thousands of people.
That rabbinical control over the filters is what has some in the Orthodox community sniffing a conspiracy to create a firewall that will also block legitimate, but unflattering, information about rabbis.
Meanwhile, individuals claiming to be from internet collective Anonymous created a spectacle outside the rally. They were adorned in leopard-print caveman attire and satirically protested the internet — as well as electricity and all modern conveniences — by shaking clubs and spears at rally attendees as they entered Citi Field.
“It’s kind of ridiculous to say, ‘OK, we like the modern world when it suits our religion, that has a bunch of traditions that we have to follow that the internet breaks, but wireless phones — no, they help Judaism,’” said Lewis Eastman, a self-proclaimed member of Anonymous. “If you’re going to modernize, modernize completely. If you’re not, don’t interpret it in your favor and hope that God says, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t mind this loophole.”