Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet

8/15/97 (Draft)

There is one main thing to remember about blocking software – the programs are meant to keep the eyeballs of the young and impressionable off of things on the Internet that the old and jaded looked for when they were kids.

Blocking software doesn’t work worth a damn at this point, and it never will unless the government and corporations tidy up the Internet with "zoning" and a ratings system.

We recently took a Sunday afternoon excursion to the Star Trek Science exhibit at the old G. Fox building in downtown Hartford. There is an Internet room there, sponsored by SNET. Folks who tire of blasting Klingon warships and cheesy virtual reality simulations can hunker down in front of Netscape and browse the World Wide Web for a few minutes. We noticed they were running Net Nanny, one of the programs designed to keep pornography and the Dark Side of the ‘Net at bay.

Had to test it.

A first click took us to Hotbot, the Wired search engine. There we typed in "warez" and clicked again. Our search list came up and we clicked on the top site. One click after that and we had full frontal female nudity, with far more promised beyond.

Now, you might say that it was no fair that we searched for "warez," a word coined to describe all manner of pirated software, instead of "sex XXX live fornication bestiality," which presumably would draw a good scolding from Net Nanny. But any teenager who has been on the Internet more than a couple of minutes will figure out similar little tricks.

Again: Blocking software doesn’t work worth a damn right now. and it isn’t just Net Nanny. It makes it more difficult for kids to access pornography, perhaps, but it doesn’t make it screamingly hard. What it does do, its critics argue, is far more invidious. It fosters an atmosphere of distrust between youth and parents, between workers and management; it can function arbitrarily; and it can be used to de facto censor the Internet according to a governmental or corporate agenda.

Now that the Communications Decency Act has been consigned to the constitutional dung-heap, blocking software is the front-and-center target of free speech enthusiasts who are chagrined to find themselves again aligned with almost no one except the American Civil Liberties Union (those lowlifes). The corporations that fought so mightily against the CDA have bailed on this one. Microsoft is touting a ratings system that would make blocking "bad" sites ever more so easy. After all, who can be against "Protecting Our Children?"

On this one, trust the ACLU and its white paper "Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?" released last week. Please.

"In the physical world, people censor the printed word by burning books," said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU and one of the paper's authors. "But in the virtual world, you can just as easily censor controversial speech by banishing it to the farthest corners of cyberspace with blocking and rating schemes."

In other words, government-coerced, industry efforts to rate content on the Internet could torch free speech online. After reviewing plans that came out of a White House summit on Internet censorship, the ACLU said that it was genuinely alarmed at industry leaders' unabashed enthusiasm in pledging to create a variety of schemes to regulate and block controversial online speech.

"Today, all that we have achieved may now be lost, if not in the bright flames of censorship then in the dense smoke of the many ratings and blocking schemes promoted by some of the very people who fought for freedom," the ACLU warns.

Makers of blocking software, it should be noted, were high on the list of the righteous in opposing the CDA, without exactly coming out and saying "If the CDA passes, we’re facing Chapter 11." Now that the torch of "Protecting Our Children" (every politician’s favorite euphemism for, "We want to take away more of your constitutional rights") has been passed to the private sector, maybe we ought to look at who’s leading the parade …

Brian Milburn, CEO of Solid Oak Software, maker of CYBERsitter, has almost single-handedly given his opponents more ammunition to use against the whole concept of blocking software than the entire ACLU. Want to know who’s "Protecting Our Children?" We’re indebted to Declan McCullagh of the Netly News, Brock Meeks’ Cyberwire Dispatch and Peacefire’s Bennett Hasleton for keeping the heat on CYBERsitter. Milburn referred to the Cyberwire Dispatch as ""nothing more than a trickle of piss in the river of life" and has emailed his advice to Hasleton, a student at Vanderbilt University: "Get a life! Go hang out at the mall with the other kids or something!"

Milburn offered a terse "Not interested. Thank you," when asked by us via email if he wished to clarify, extend or explain comments he has made regarding CYBERsitter opponents.

Among the 44,000-plus sites blocked by CYBERsitter, for the 900,000 customers it claims:

The National Organization for Women

If N.O.W. doesn't like it, tough," Brian Milburn said in a CyberWire Dispatch article on blocking software. "We have not and will not bow to any pressure from any organization that disagrees with our philosophy." Milburn later admitted that N.O.W. was blocked for linking to information about "alternative lifestyles".

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

"Achieving Human Rights and Freedoms for Sexual Minorities Worldwide." Supplies educational information regarding human rights abuses directed against gays and lesbians in the United States and other countries.

The Human Awareness Institute

"Aims to create a world where people live in dignity, respect, understanding, trust, kindness, honesty, compassion and love." No information from CYBERsitter as to why this kind of site would be blocked.

Internex Online

"Internet Connectivity for Individuals". A provider based in Toronto, Ontario. Their server includes the National Organization of People Attacking Sales of Tobacco to Youth (NO PATSY).

Peacefire and The Ethical Spectator

Both sites have been critical of CYBERsitter. Milburn has acknowledged that CYBERsitter was adjusted so that the free trial version would not load on any computer holding a file indicating it had visited the Peacefire site. Peacefire was the source of a program that was able to decrypt the "secret" CYBERsitter ban list.

Does CYBERsitter sound like it has an agenda? It’s marketed in part by the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family, not only to parents but also to publicly funded schools and libraries—not a subculture known for its love of free speech and open information. The group, founded by Dr. James Dobson in 1977 in "two rooms in Arcadia, California," now claims 1,300 employees in 74 ministries worldwide. It operates 10 magazines with a circulation of 2.3 million and its daily radio broadcast is heard at over 4,000 locations worldwide, according to the FOTF web site. The ACLU has suggested, as a start, that companies making blocking software at least release lists of sites blocked and disclose what organizations may influence choices.

So: who’s your pick for keeping your kids from going where you don’t want them to today? Yourself or a guy who believes the earth is 6,000 years old?

Despite the darkly ominous hysterics of some of the free-speechers, we can’t help but giggle at the idea of the government and/or Brian Milburn given free reign to censor the Internet as they will. We have a lot of faith in the hackers, the cyberoutlaws on the fringes who operate by their own sometimes questionably legal codes but many of whom, reeking of Clearasil and Gummy Worms, subscribe to the honored Hackers’ Ethic -- information should be free and accessible to all. Their response to attempts to restrict information are at the very worst outright harassment of the censors and at the very least a few moments’ time circumventing the censor controls. These are, after all, the friendly folks who crack the federal government’s encryption programs for fun. We see any real attempts to censor the Net as something that will die publicly, dramatically, and amid much laughter.

Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet can be reached at http://*****CENSORED*****

Related sites on the WWW – Makers of CYBERsitter – Youth organization against censorship. – The American Civil Liberties Union – Hotbot search tool Focus on the Family

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