Tangled Webs
Where Won't We Let You Go Today?
Oct 1, 1997
Issue 2.12

The Web as a Sword

Several Japanese companies have recently introduced software designed to block access to sites deemed unsuitable. I was a bit surprised to see filtering software being sold in Japan, which has so far avoided the Internet fear that has gripped America.

The American Internet panic began in 1995 when Time Magazine based a cover story on a fraudulent study by Marty Rimm that claimed the vast majority of Internet traffic was pornographic. Time later printed a retraction, but the damage was done, and half a dozen companies began selling filtering software to "protect the children."

It soon became clear, however, that some of these companies were pursuing their own agenda. Banned sites included Time Warner's Pathfinder, The MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression, Mother Jones Magazine, The Jewish Bulletin, Planned Parenthood, The Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance, Envirolink, The National Organization for Women, The Village Voice, and newsgroups relating to feminism or atheism.

Furthermore, filtering software began to do more than just block sites, it now also edits e-mail, deleting potentially offensive words and leaving no trace that they were ever there. CyberSitter, for example, deletes all occurrences of the phrase "Don't buy CyberSitter" on websites, newsgroups and private e-mail. CyberPatrol takes the concept a step further and actually disconnects the computer when an offending words or phrase is detected.

The mainstream press reported to comments of the ACLU and EFF on one side and the Christian Coalition and right-wing politicians on the other. But perhaps the most the most informative and representative exchange is taking place on the Internet itself; an ongoing feud between a group of Vanderbilt university students and Solid Oak Software, the makers of CyberSitter.

The Web as a Pen
When Bennett Haselton was concerned about filtering software and its potential for abuse, he did what all self-respecting teens do these days. He put up a web site. Peacefire (http://www.peacefire.org), contains evaluations of the various filtering programs and provides links to their sites. When he posted software that let users of CyberSitter see exactly which sites were being blocked, however, the makers of CyberSitter took umbrage, and the fireworks began.

Brian Milburn, President of Solid Oak Software, makers of CyberSitter sent a cease and desist letter. Seemingly unclear on the concept of the Web, Milburn maintained that Peacefire's links to his site constituted "trespassing and intentional harassment," and that providing information on which sites CyberSitter blocked was a "clear violation of copyright law." Legal action would be forthcoming if the links were not removed, and the Peacefire site was added to CyberSitter's list of banned sites.

Legal bluster is not uncommon on the Net, but this turned out to be just the beginning. When Brock Meeks published a critical article in the CyberWire Dispatch, Milburn responded by threatening legal action, banning the article, and calling Meeks "a trickle of piss in the river of life," a phrase that does not make it past Milburn's own filtering software.

In the months that followed, Solid Oak reprogrammed its product to search user's hard disks and then to refuse to install if it found evidence that the computer had ever been used to view the Peacefire site. Solid Oak Software even threatened to block all sites hosted by Peacefire's ISP unless the Peacefire site was removed from their servers.

Never the Twain Shall Meet
None of the threatened legal action has come to pass, the Peacefire site remains on the Net, and the barbs continue to fly. Undoubtedly, both Peacefire and Solid Oak will prevail in their own congregations because both are preaching to the choir. Awareness of these issues runs high on the Internet, and discussions and documents are archived for all to see. Solid Oak's actions have been roundly condemned on every Internet forum in which I've seen them discussed.

The traditional press, however, has never heard of Peacefire, and lauds Solid Oak as protectors of decency and occasionally advocates installing such software on all public computers connected to the Internet. Perhaps unaware of Mr. Milburn's shenanigans, both PC World and Consumer Reports highly recommended CyberSitter.

The Communications Revolution will change societies as fundamentally as the Industrial Revolution has, and there is naturally a great deal of fear and uncertainly among those who do not yet understand the changes afoot. The solution, of course, is education, but preying on the climate fear is far more profitable.

The target market for filtering software is those whose knowledge of the Internet comes from sound-bytes that hint at the terrible dangers that await the innocents who log on. It is a market defined by fears, not facts. Web page commentary and newsgroup condemnation will never reach these people.

Solid Oak software certainly knows their market. My attempts to contact them for clarification and comment on these matters failed. I was later informed that they have configured their servers to delete all incoming e-mail that mentions Peacefire or Solid Oak's other critics.

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© Copyright 1997, Tim Romero, t3@t3y.com
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