Cybersitter: Where Do We Not Want You To Go Today?"
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 17 Feb 97 13:05:34 -0800
Subject: Cybersitter: Where Do We Not Want You To Go Today?"
Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <email@example.com>
Forwarded-by: Phil Agre <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Forwarded-by: kkc@COMPETITOR.NET(K.K. Campbell)
WHO'S WATCHING THE 'WATCHERS'?
The Toronto Star
Thursday, January 30, 1997
One of the most controversial aspects of cyberspace is censorship. A
widely accepted solution to eliminating the "unwanted" is self-imposed
censorship, through special software which blocks out types of content
The appeal of these programs is that people needn't rely on distant
authority to dictate acceptability. We police ourselves; or at least we
have some control over how we will be policed.
The news media have generally blessed "blocking software" with
unexamined sprinklings of warm praise. After all, who dares suggest
that stopping your 5-year-old from seeing graphic gore, violence or sex
is bad? What could go wrong with that?
But, now critics are starting to ask, who is "watching the watchers?"
Could these watchers themselves develop more "creative applications"
for their power to silence? Could they apply their own personal
prejudices, or even their own hidden agendas?
Or is that paranoid nonsense?
Ask U.S. author Jonathan Wallace (email@example.com). Wallace says
California's Solid Oak software, which produces Cybersitter blocking
software, has added his site to its "block list" in retaliation for
critical remarks he made about the company.
Solid Oak claims 900,000 registered Cybersitter users.
Wallace, a New York-based software business executive and attorney is
co-author of the book _Sex, Laws and Cyberspace_ (Henry Holt, $34.95).
Net.column will discuss the book with its author next installment.
He's also editor of the monthly Webzine _The Ethical Spectacle_, which
focuses on "the intersection of ethics, law and politics in our
The Webzine recently asked readers to not purchase Cybersitter because
of continuing reports of Solid Oak's "unethical behavior."
"In the book," Wallace says in a press release explaining his current
attitude to Cybersitter, "we took the position -- naively, I now think
-- that use of blocking software by parents was a less restrictive
alternative to government censorship. We never expected that publishers
of blocking software would block sites for their political content
alone, as Solid Oak has done."
Solid Oak unequivocably denies there is a political agenda of any kind
"Absolutely, 100 per cent not," Marc Kanter told the Toronto Star in a
phone interview. Kanter is Solid Oak's vice president of marketing.
"There is no hidden political agenda."
Kanter says someone criticizing Cybersitter would not be blocked. He
says Wallace's site is blocked because it "links information on how to
hack Cybersitter. We do not allow our customers to have hacking
information for the program."
Wallace told The Star that's not true. "There's no such information on
my site, nor is there on Peacefire's. I link to some pages maintained
by Glen Roberts, who -- along with some political commentary on
Cybersitter, and analysis of its blocking policy -- offers a (legal)
work-around. However, since his site is separately blocked by
Cybersitter, there is no reason for them to block my site as well."
Kanter dismisses Wallace's complaints. "The guy didn't do any
homework," Kanter says. "There are a few people who are right-wing
activists who are out there that are trying to defame the filtering
program. This is what leads to stories like you are doing -- and
hopefully you are not supportive of their actions."
Wallace didn't know what to make of that. "I've been called a
communist, a socialist, and a wild-eyed civil libertarian, but no one
has ever called me right wing before," he says. "Kanter has obviously
never read _The Ethical Spectacle_."
While Cybersitter, with fanfare, claims its mission is to block Web
sites containing pornography, obscenity, gratuitous violence, hate
speech, criminal activity, etc., an increasing number of investigative
Net.journalists also claim Cybersitter, without fanfare, blocks access
to Web sites based on political criteria.
FOR OUR OWN GOOD
This brouhaha began last summer when CyberWire Dispatch revealed
Cybersitter blocks sites based on political agenda, such as the
feminist National Organization for Women (www.now.org).
Dispatch journalist/editor Brock Meeks asked Solid Oak CEO Brian
Milburn (firstname.lastname@example.org) about that.
"Milburn isn't shy about it," Meeks reported. "He was outright
indignant when he originally told Dispatch: 'If NOW doesn't like it,
Solid Oak threatened to sue Dispatch for its article, but things
In December, the issue erupted again when 18-yearold Bennett Haselton
(email@example.com) wrote an article about the company's selection
of blocked sites: "Cybersitter: Where Do We Not Want You To Go Today?"
Haselton takes computer science and math at Vanderbilt University.
"Peacefire" is his own creation, a teen cyberrights group, average age
According to various Net.journalists, Solid Oak now threatened Bennett
with a lawsuit and even tried to get the Peacefire site booted from its
host system (media3.net) by telling Media3 that Haselton was making it
"his mission in life to defame our product" by "routinely" publishing
names of sites blocked by Cybersitter.
(It should be noted it's easy to figure out which sites are blocked,
the software provides an output list. Try "playboy.com" -- blocked. Try
"whitehouse.com" -- okay. Try "peacefire.org" -- blocked. Try "now.org"
Unsuccessful in his pressure against Media3, Milburn instead included
the peacefire.org domain in Cybersitter's block list.
On Dec. 9, HotWired picked the story up
(www.wired.com/news/story/901.html). NetAction Notes
(www.netaction.org) quickly followed suit. Haselton told his story to
the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the EFF assured him it would
represent him, should Solid Oak deliver on its threat to sue.
On Dec. 20, The Netly News (http://netlynews.com) continued the
investigation of Cybersitter. Aside from the irony of Cybersitter
censoring the newsgroup alt.censorship, it "blocks dozens of ISPs and
university sites such as well .com, zoom.com, anon.penet.fi, best.com,
webpower.com, ftp.std.com, cts.com, gwis2.seas.gwu.edu, hss.cmu.edu,
c2.org, echonyc.com and accounting.com. Now, sadly, some libraries are
BLACK LIST TO BLOCK LIST
Wallace read the reports of legal threats against the teenager and
thought "Milburn was acting like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla."
So Wallace added a link on _The Spectacle_'s homepage called "Don't Buy
"I wrote the company," he says, "informing them of my actions and
telling them that they misrepresent their product when they claim it
blocks only indecent material, hate speech and the like."
Wallace says Solid Oak responded by adding his Webzine to its block
list. Learning of this, Wallace wrote Milburn and Solid Oak tech
"I pointed out that _The Spectacle_ does not fit any of their published
criteria for blocking a site," he says. "I received mail in return
demanding that I cease writing to them and calling my mail 'harassment'
-- with a copy to the postmaster at my ISP."
Kanter acknowledges this. "He spoke to us more than once or twice -- he
continued to send mail -- mail like that is considered 'not wanted' and
is automatically sent back."
By the end of our phone conversation, Kanter had dropped the
"right-wing activist" explanation of who was behind the Cybersitter
complaints and offered a new one:
"Some of this rhetoric was started by someone we believe to be a highly
-- how do you put it? -- a highly homosexual individual, who did not
believe we should have the right to block any sites or links to
alternative lifestyles. That's how a lot of this got started."
Why is the National Organization for Women site blocked?
"Very simple. It contains links to gay and lesbian hardcore material. I
was on their page this morning, and there is a lot of offensive
material linked directly. Just go to their links page and start looking
at 'gay' and 'feminism.' Our parents don't want that kind of stuff."
I asked if he really meant "hardcore" -- suggestive of full-penetration
"Yes, by links through links," he clarifies. If someone followed the
links starting at now.org, they'd eventually find hardcore sexual
Kanter says parents are not permitted to know which sites Cybersitter
"That list is not given to anybody under any circumstances -- including
law enforcement agencies that have requested it." He says it's to
prevent the list from "getting into the wrong hands."
It would be a cybermap to naughtiness for some kids. And parents aren't
allowed to remove blocked sites from Cybersitter, although they can add
to the list.
Cyber-rights activists claim the incident underscores warnings they've
issued for years: While censorship software may first aim to protect
children against "pornography," it can quickly be adopted for political
_The Ethical Spectacle_ is at www.spectacle.org. Solid Oak's Web site
can be found at www.solidoak.com.
Copyright 1997 K.K. Campbell
© 1997 Peter Langston