SILICON LOUNGE: Anti-censorship Group Fights Web Filtering

Senator John McCain may have persuaded Congress to require internet-filtering software in schools and libraries, but he still has a formidable opponent in 21-year-old Bennett Haselton.

As founder of the anticensorship Peacefire.org, Haselton says government attempts to block access to sites could be unconstitutional, and he argues that private attempts, while legal, are both futile and insulting to young people. "There are not enough people laughing at that idea," he says in a phone interview from Seattle, where he works as a freelance programmer. "We've decided that a picture of a woman's nipple is harmful, but with a black square covering it up, it's not harmful in any way. It's pretty arbitrary."

Haselton recently testified against filtering programs—called "censorware" by critics—before the federal Children Online Protection Act commission. Haselton gave examples of several censorware programs at work, such as FamilyClick, which roped off a report on AIDS in China and another on gambling in Washington State. Cyber Sentinel blocked all of CNN.com, as well as searches for the COPA commission itself. And in a random check, he said, SurfWatch blocked 51 of 1000 Web sites. Of those, only nine contained porn.

That 82 percent error rate is a glaring reason to reject filtering programs, says Michael Sims of the Censorware Project (www.censorware.org). "That never would be tolerable anywhere else," he says. "If the cops came and yanked four Dr. Seuss books from the bookstore for every copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, there would be an outcry beyond belief."

Peacefire now includes some 6000 members—many not old enough to drink—who regularly test censorware for weaknesses and post the results on the nonprofit's Web site. They also try to decrypt censorware makers' private lists of blocked sites, which are kept off-limits even to customers who buy the programs. "It's an arms race between the people who make the software and us," Haselton says.

Marc Kanter, vice president of marketing for Solid Oak Software, which publishes Cybersitter, has only this to say about Peacefire: "We don't comment on the individuals within that so-called organization." And Cyber Patrol general manager Susan Getgood says: "I don't particularly feel like making any comment about Peacefire."

In May, Peacefire revealed the results of its Project Bait and Switch, developed to show that filtering methods are biased by design. Peacefire copied antigay quotes off conservative sites such as Focus on the Family and Concerned Women of America and placed them on dummy Web pages. The group then submitted the sites to several filtering companies as examples of "offensive" sites that should be blocked. All the companies agreed to block those pages, but not their original homes.

Such selective censorship is routine for filtering companies, Haselton argues. "Sites blocked for political reasons are often [blocked] intentionally by the company. … In general, the press has been too easy on these companies," he says.

He has a point. Even civil libertarians often suggest it's up to parents to choose a filtering method that ensures their children aren't exposed to harmful material. The problem is that censorware companies are highly competitive, so they don't reveal their lists of blocked sites—forcing parents to make a leap of faith. "They're secret, so that means mistakes often don't get discovered," Haselton says. And when a single foul-up is revealed, companies just issue a PR "oops" and fix that problem, without addressing the underlying faults.

Despite the pervasive flaws in censorware, the companies that market it stand to get a lot of new business, thanks to the McCain-led effort to install censorware. The provision, attached as an amendment to a huge appropriations bill now on President Clinton's desk, would require all schools and libraries receiving "E-rate" funds for Internet wiring to install filtering programs to block "inappropriate" material. The amendment, opposed by the ACLU and the American Library Association, does not require that the companies provide lists of filtered sites to the public.

"It puts privately compiled, secret blacklists in public institutions," says Jonathan Wallace of the Censorware Project.

But attorney Michael Millen, whose client is suing the Livermore, California, library district in an effort to restrict access to porn, says the need to shield kids is top priority. "Compared to the psychological shock suffered by young children who view images of unspeakable sexual behaviors, I'll vote to protect the kids every time," he says.

Yet, Haselton believes that kids, especially teenagers, have constitutional rights to information. "What's fair about treating people under 18 like second-class citizens?" he asks. "The state wants to have it both ways: The only time you're treated like an adult is when you commit a crime."

Millen, for his part, says filtering is about parents' rights. "Encouraging children to rebel against their parents and empowering them to view sexually explicit images is morally wrong," he says, pointing to the Genesis creation narrative as historical proof that knowledge can lead to destructive behavior.

Even his critics believe Haselton's work may be positive. "Peacefire's studies concerning filter efficacy are helpful because they force the filtering industry to become better," Millen says. "I support any attempt to show that the emperor has no clothes."

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