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Thursday, April 24, 1997

Just Who, In God's Name, Is Protecting Our Children?

by Bennett Haselton with Preface by Clinton Fein

As we grapple in the courts with issues pertaining to censorship and appropriateness, one of the biggest defenses used by anti-censorship advocates is the availability of what is known as content-blocking software. In essence, this software is supposed to provide parents with a tool with which to block objectionable material from reaching their children. At best.

However, much of the technology is built with cultural and social biases that have many crying foul. Sites providing information ranging from breast cancer to conflict resolution have been blocked - despite attempts to provide valuable information that is sought and required by the parents of the children for whom the software has been applied. Sites dealing with adult or sexual issues, illegal activities, bigotry, racism, drugs, or pornography are blocked, regardless of whether they are advocating, admonishing or simply addressing a particular issue.

PC Magazine recently voted as Editor's Choice, a particular content blocking software product Cybersitter, available from a Santa Barbara based company, Solid Oak Software, Inc. But as annoy.com contributor, Peacefire's Bennett Haselton reveals, the manner in which Cybersitter's owners treat the "children" they claim to protect is, at the very least, eye opening.

Capitalizing on the panic over Internet porn, a Santa Barbara company called Solid Oak Software is selling a product called CYBERsitter, claiming that it blocks out "objectionable material" on the Internet while children are online. This undoubtedly gets some parents thinking about whether they'd rather collar their kids with a software program while they're on the Internet, or talk to them about the difference between good taste and bad, right and wrong.

One web site that CYBERsitter is blocking is Peacefire, an alliance of teenagers against Internet censorship at http://www.peacefire.org, probably because of our page: "CYBERsitter: Where Do We Not Want You To Go Today?", which points out some of the "objectionable material" that is really blocked by CYBERsitter. (CYBERsitter keeps their list of "bad sites" secret so you can't pry open the product to find out what's really being blocked. Trade secrets, you understand.)

It's not a secret anymore, but CYBERsitter filters out the phrases "gay rights" and "safe sex" from web pages, and blocks access to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the National Organization for Women (maybe because the letters in "Solid Oak Software, Inc." can be rearranged to spell "sack of N.O.W. editorials").

In November, CYBERsitter also threatened a lawsuit and complained to our ISP, Media3, that because of Peacefire's "juvenile teenaged political agenda" the entire range of IP addresses allocated to Media3 would be blocked as a result of their hosting Peacefire. Brian Milburn, CEO of Solid Oak Software, was duly pissed off when the story broke on the Wired News web site: "Judging by the amount of geek-mail we received," he wrote to the author, "you have quite a loyal following of pinhead idiots."

Talking to another reporter, he said of the complaints that people were sending his company: "They have no right to send that stuff to my address." Milburn's graceful manner extended to his critics as well, to whom he sent responses by e-mail oscillating from "Get a life! Go hang out at the mall with the other kids or something" to "You are a trickle of piss in the river of life" to simply "Fuck off".

Then, in March, another member of Peacefire submitted a complaint and elicited a new response: "Go stick your pecker in a door and slam it!" The recipient wrote back one more time to make sure he wasn't dealing with a lunatic who had seized control of a computer in the support department. Brian Milburn politely apologized. He admitted that they had been rash in their response, and promised to look into the behavior of their technical support staff. They also agreed that they had been unjustified in blocking Peacefire, and agreed to remove the ban on the site followed by HEHEHEEHEEEHEHE HAHAHAHAHAHAHA HOHOHOHOHOHOHO HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA HEHEHEHE HAHAHAHAHOHOHOHO HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA HEHE HAHAHAHAHAHA.

*sniff* sorry about that last paragraph. No, actually what Solid Oak did was to send a five-megabyte e-mail-bomb called "todays.zip" to the address of the person who complained.

See, this is why it's hard to get a philosophical discussion going about the ethics of rating, filtering, and censorship -- you can barely get three sentences out before CYBERsitter handles one more incident with the moral and professional integrity of toe jam. We try to get the point across on our web site that people need to look at blocking and filtering in the abstract, and ask ourselves if we want to become a country that uses computer programs to pass on values to kids. But a lot of people just want to hear more CYBERsitter muckraking: "What are they blocking?" "Did they file a lawsuit?" "How can I get my web site blocked by CYBERsitter?!"

Answer: write to CYBERsitter and tell them you're putting up a web page about how much they suck

Bennett Haselton hails from Peacefire, one of the plaintiffs in New York state's version of the Communications Decency Act. Peacefire was created in August 1996 to represent students' interests in the debate over freedom of speech on the Internet.


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