Content Censorship.

Friday, January 31, 1997

A Dirty Word
Censorship of any kind is a dirty word. Most people agree on this point. It's the degrees of difference between the levels of definition that we disagree on: where to stop, where to start. Each persone has their threshold, no two are alike. Yet, as a Nation, we're entrenched in camps of differing opinion and action.
With all the recent (1996) commotion about foul language, pornography and indecency on The InterNet, someone just had to invent the appropriate software to filter the evil content. And someone is making a lot of money from software that seems to have its own political and social agenda. What counts here is the perception that it just works; making Mommy and Daddy feel secure that Junior and Sister are viewing only Lassie and Partidge Family Websites. That isn't always the case.
After noticing a Cybertimes story in The New York Times a few weeks ago about a Vanderbilt University student taking on the likes of Solid Oak Software, I invited the student, Bennett Haselton, to tell me what kind of anti-First Amendment attitude he believes this company really has.
It's easy for kids to disable and change the parameters of this so-called filtering software, according to many people in the business. The programs contain hidden, secretly-compliled lists of thousands of words, topics, websites and domains that are electronically-banned from users of this software. The software is updated automatically over the Web, as Websites come and go. I know two families who have tried these programs, and their 8 and 9-year old kids have disabled it everytime they logged-on to the InterNet. They got rid of the software. What's the point of having something to filter those big, bad sites out if it can be fooled? Here's how to easily disable the software. There's no point at all to having that stuff, if kids can easily fool it, other than to assuage Mommy and Daddy's collective conscience. (It looks like Solid Oak may have addressed that problem at their version upgrade page.) To be fair, Solid Oak isn't the only company selling this type of software product nationwide; just under than ten companies populate the so-called filtering field that claims this technology works unfailingly. Except when you reverse engineer (their words) the software, which is also a federal offense. I don't even know what that concept means. Reverse engineer? Duh.
Be sure to read the accompanying articles; that's all I've had time to assemble so far. As things progress, updates will be posted in coming Journals.
Here's what Bennett Haselton has to say:

The most widely praised "First Amendment heroes" of 1996 were not politicians. They were not lobbying groups like the ACLU. They were software companies that witnessed the birth of a new industry: Internet applications that will morally educate your children for you, or at least babysit them for a little while.

Not long after the government started threatening to censor foul language on the Internet with the infamous "Communications Decency Act" (CDA), products like SurfWatch, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny and Cyber Patrol made their splash, ironically billing themselves as supporters of free speech. Such programs prevent minors from using the Internet to research gay rights abuses or chat with friends overseas, depending on the levels of restriction set by their parents or, in most cases, by the software makers themselves. Now, this hardly opens up the companies to cries of censorship--they know they can't be criticized for stepping on minors' Constitutional rights, since in the age of curfew laws and random drug testing there apparently aren't any--but on the other hand how did it make them into First Amendment heroes?

The argument went roughly: "Government censorship is unnecessary, because tools are already available to prevent children and teenagers from exploring the Internet freely. Besides, these programs are voluntary, except for minors, but minors aren't entitled to freedom of speech anyway. If we didn't have these programs, we would have the Communications Decency Act to deal with instead." Software companies are milking this for all it's worth. Virtually all of them encourage you to "support free speech" with a link to their web site, and the two companies that make SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol are plaintiffs in the ACLU's lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act.

The typical Nanny program comes with a list of up to 10,000 sites that the manufacturer has deemed inappropriate for minors. But because web sites are appearing and disappearing every day, each company patrols the Internet daily to look for more bad sites, which are added to the master list on the company's central computer. Customers are encouraged to retrieve the latest copy of the company's blacklist over the Internet about once a week--otherwise the censorship software you bought last Monday won't screen out the smut shack that appeared on the Web on Tuesday. To make things even more complicated, the "bad site list" is stored in an encrypted format on the user's computer so that customers can't read it. The only way to find out that a given web site is blocked is to stumble on it while the program is activated. It can take hours to get a general idea of what a given program filters, and the fact that the list is changing all the time doesn't help.

After the praise that software filters received as "the alternative to government censorship" during the CDA trial, criticizing the programs has become very politically incorrect. Our group, Peacefire ( decided to do it anyway and published a web site in November that listed some of the sites that CYBERsitter blocks: The National Organization for Women, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon, the liberal Mother Jones magazine--all of them filtered out under the pretext of blocking "adult issues". The program also removes phrases like "gay rights" and "safe sex" from web pages before displaying them. Our page was called "CYBERsitter: Where Do We Not Want You To Go Today?", and it's still there at:

Solid Oak Software was not pleased. On December 6 they put Peacefire on their "not for children" list. Their 900,000 customers, without being notified, would no longer have access to our web site while CYBERsitter was running.

This set a few events in motion. A few Peacefire members wrote to Solid Oak, complaining that the Peacefire web site didn't fit into any of their "bad site" categories (rasicm, violence, pornography, etc.). In other words, blocking our site made them guilty of false advertising. Solid Oak thought about this and added a new "bad site" category in our honor: "Information that may interfere with the legal rights and obligations of a parent or our customers." Thanks, guys!

Meanwhile, Solid Oak Software told me that I would be hearing from their lawyers and contacted our Internet Service Provider, Media3, with a stern message: all 2,500 sites hosted by Media3 would be blocked by CYBERsitter if Peacefire were not removed. We had to get the pro bono assistance of a lawyer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (roughly the online equivalent of the ACLU) to avoid a lawsuit. The web site of computer-geek-gospel Wired magazine published a story about CYBERsitter's threats, and the news found its way up to the web sites of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Peacefire was immediately overwhelmed with email, and Solid Oak received their share of messages as well. "Judging from the amount of geek-mail we received," their CEO wrote to Wired, "you have quite a loyal following of pinhead idiots."

So, now a few more people know that CYBERsitter has no style. But the effect isn't limited to one company. Maybe now, "blocking software" will be judged on its own merits instead of being worshipped as saviors from government censorship. It's bizarre for companies to drape themeselves with the Flag while perpetuating stories about the oceans of pornography in cyberspace, when the biggest threat to free speech on the Internet is more hysteria about the dangers to children. There are just as many stories about repressed gay and lesbian youth who found the courage to come out through making contacts on the Internet--none of which would have been possible if CYBERsitter had been running.

And the criticism isn't limited to a bunch of kids whining about not being able to access Playboy either. We know that some adults ("even" parents!) agree that software companies shouldn't be telling families how to raise their children. Declan McCullagh and Brock Meeks of the CyberWire Dispatch wrote an article last summer criticizing some of the Nanny programs. McCullagh later said, "Filtering software was developed by the industry in a response to government threats, and often the end result is even worse than a true government act like the CDA because you can't fight it in court." He knows what he's talking about--CYBERsitter threatened to turn him over to the FBI for "criminal copyright violations" because he published eight lines of CYBERsitter's "bad word" list! Jon Katz of the Netizen put it more bluntly, calling censorship software the Internet's "first smarmy political deal with the outside world: Don't censor us, take our children instead."
(615) 421 6408

Here's a list of articles published to date about the controversy; some interesting reading here.

Wired News--December 10:

Netly News--December 20:

CyberWire Dispatch--December 20:

MSNBC, December 26:

LA Times--January 6

this is a recent article in the NYTimes about Page Authors' Benefit Against Censorship:


Hi, it's me again, John. Where's this all going from here? Well, it's difficult to say right now. I thought it was important to know what is going on with a potentially precedent-setting legal controversy such as this, affecting the First Amendment's protection of Free Speech, not only in cyberspace but in the real world.
Censoring someone who is at odds with your point-of-view politically is evil. Yet the filtering of certain types of content is in great demand since. Kids under 18 are protected by federal and state laws. And some companies have filled a vertical niche with special filtering software. Parents have a right and many might say an obligation to buy that kind of software; but the larger question is who decides on the banned content not to be viewed by anyone? Is the decision too often based upon rational thinking or angry business or personal reprisals? Yes, too often it is. Sad but true.
The dichotomy between these two points of view is staggering. And it's headed to the courts for adjudication. It will be an interesting scenario as it unfolds.

Your Comments, Mr. Milburn

I'm sending this entry to Brian Milburn, President of Solid Oak Software and will ask what his comments are. He'll be invited to respond in this very space at his convenience.


There's an amazing article in Forbes Magazine about the guy who really runs Microsoft. I'd heard about his tactics in an old computer magazine back in the early 80s. The Microsoft triumvirate is Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer. It seems that everyone's anger at Bill Gates' attitude is somewhat mis-directed, after reading this story. For an eye-opener, spend some time with it. It's the best to date that I've read about Microsoft.

Stupor Bowl XXXI

No, I didn't watch it, don't care about it and often wonder "why" so many millions and millions and millions of others do? Grossly-overpaid, lousy/bad character, low-performing, so-called athletes in a 3hr joke-of-a-TV-sitcom-show, and the corrupt NFL makes hundreds-of-millions, while thousands of idiots lose their shirts betting, and others make complete assholes of themselves? Why? Why indeed! For the money, honey! BTW, Green Bay 35, New England 21, but who-the-hell cares?

J o h nS h e l l e y

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