CyberWire Dispatch -- The Envelope Please -- 6/17/97
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 19 Jun 97 15:01:04 -0700
Subject: CyberWire Dispatch -- The Envelope Please -- 6/17/97
From: "Meeks, Brock" <Brock.Meeks@MSNBC.COM>
CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1997 // June 17th //
Jacking in from the "Envelope Please" port:
New York-CyberWire Dispatch received the top award for "Best Online
Feature" from the Computer Press Association during its 12th annual awards
ceremony for its investigative story "Keys to the Kingdom" that exposed
the hidden agendas hard coded into so-called blocking software programs.
Dispatch immediately announced it was doubling its subscription because,
hell, let's face it, you strike while the iron's hot. (Which is a saying I
The award makes Dispatch a back-to-back winner. Last year CWD won the top
honor in the "Best Investigative Story or Series" category for its articles
exposing the twisted story of Carnegie Mellon University undergrad Marty
Rimm's attempt to pass off a flawed study of online pornography as a
definitive case history. Dispatch also exposed Rimm's calculated and
deceptive manipulation of Time magazine which resulted in the infamous
"Cyberporn" cover story fiasco.
The judges said CWD authors Brock N. Meeks and Declan McCullagh "produced
an investigative piece on a serious and important subject-a rare feat in
any media. 'Keys to the Kingdom' revealed that parental control
software-which ostensibly filters out pornographic Internet sites-actually
restricts access to all types of material both innocuous and important.
Thus, software users unwittingly restrict their rights of free speech and
access to information. This story, colorfully written and packed with
details, raised this important issue to the online community and resulted
in high profile follow-ups with mainstream media such as the Washington
Post, New York Times and the Wall St. Journal."
In other words, the judges got it. Of course, "colorfully written" is a
code word for "it was packed with profanity, twisted tales of drug and
alcohol abuse and flirtation with a gender bending source." Kids, don't
try this home...
The software blocking controversy continues to this day, with few changes
being made. One company, CyberPatrol, is now changing the way its software
handles the blocking of sites so that it doesn't sweep in non-offending
content. Currently, CyberPatrol truncates a blocked site's URL without
regard for any other site that may be caught in that blocking net. For
example, if CyberPatrol wants to block a URL with 'cybersex" in the domain
name, the company simply blocks on the word "cyber" meaning that a site
called "cyber-highschool" would be caught in CyberPatrol's "CyberNot" list
and therefore not accessible.
At least CyberPatrol is working to eliminate the problem. Another nefarious
software program, CyberSitter, refuses to acknowledge any hidden agenda in
its blocking patterns. CyberSitter continues to block a host of sites that
deal with topics other than pornography, such as the National Organization
for Women and Peacefire.Org. The latter site has become a leading critic
of CyberSitter and that critical voice appears to be the only reason why
it's blocked by CyberSitter. Brian Milburn, president of Solid Oak Software
which developed CyberSitter, continues to boast of how his program is being
heavily used by Christian groups such as Focus on the Family. At the same
time, Milburn is fond of sending out disparaging Email to his critics. When
Dispatch wrote about Milburn's failed attempt to threaten this publication
with legal action based on the bogus claims of copyright violation, Milburn
wrote that Dispatch is "nothing more than a trickle of piss in the river of
life." I'm sure Focus on the Family would love to put that quote in their
brochures hawking Milburn's software to its membership.
The Real Heroes
The real hero behind this award is "Red" our transvestite source that passed
CWD what was essentially the smoking gun: the lists of block sites of
several software programs. These lists of blocked sites are essentially
trade secrets and are therefore encrypted. The lists are the ultimate
"little black book" of every naughty site on the Net, hence the "keys to
the kingdom" title of our piece. But Red was able to break the encryption
and read the lists in plain text. What Red saw there shocked and dismayed
him, er, her, er... whatever... and passed the lists on to CWD.
The other hero here is Declan McCullagh, currently the Washington
Correspondent for Time magazine's "the Netly News." Declan did the majority
of the reporting as I pointed him in this direction and that and let him
run with it. Meanwhile, I was doing most of the heavy drinking, trying to
grind out my copy on a daily basis for HotWired's Netizen where I was
covering the most boring fucking presidential campaign since Ruthaford B.
Hayes beat whomever back in whatever year. Declan ground away at the story,
dogging it like a crazed rat terrier. If not for his efforts, the story
might still be unwritten.
That the story might still be unknown had not CWD written it is a sad
commentary on the state of "computer journalism." Where is all the hard
nosed, down in the dirt investigative journalism when it comes to the
computer and online industry? You have to look long and hard to find it.
The San Jose Mercury News took home this year's award for "Best
Investigative Story" for a story about how thieves are stealing chips. "No
longer content to hijack a truck or bribe employees to look the other way,
high-tech thieves have escalated into kidnapping, coercion and brutality to
get their hands on components literally worth more than their weight in
cocaine or gold," the judges wrote of the Merc's story. The Merc also
walked away with the "Best Overall Coverage in a General Interest Newspaper"
so it's not a big leap to see them cop the investigative award, as well.
[Side Note: CWD's "Keys" article was originally entered in the
investigative story category. Someone on the CPA committee moved it to
the online feature category because the investigative category was for print
only! Don't ask me why; CWD won in this category last year. Not to take
away from the Merc's story, but boys, if CWD goes head-to-head with your
chip story, CWD kicks your ass.]
So where are all the investigative stories? The New York Times was no where
to be found last night, neither was the Wall St. Journal or the Washington
Post or Business Week. The fact is, journalists covering this industry give
it too much of a free ride. Yes, there are scathing product reviews...
oooohhhh, now there is some top notch muckraking journalism.
This industry is making profits that border on obscene. And when there is
that much money at stake there is dirt, big time dirt. But few are looking.
A concerted effort needs to be undertaken to hold this industry's feet to
the fire, hell, we need to burn this industry down and rejoice in what rises
from the ash.
Thanks to all those on the CPA committee for this award and the judges. (I
got riled up giving my speech last night and forgot to thank the CPA for
the award.) And a special nod to Adaptec who ponied up the money for the
whole event and to Dee Cravens, the company's vice president for
communications, who had a few choice things to say about the shaky nature
of "computer journalism" as well. Good on you, Dee, as CWD's Aussie readers
like to say.
Thanks to Declan for his hard work on the story and "fuck you" to Josh
Quittner, who is El Heffe for Pathfinder.com and the real brains behind
anything intelligent Time Inc. does in print or online dealing with
cyberspace, for stealing Declan away from me before I made the jump to MSNBC
as their chief Washington Correspondent.
Thanks to Red for all his, er, her, er, whatever, efforts in bring this
story to the public's eye. And thanks to my insightful and ballsy editors
at MSNBC who continue to allow me to write CWD without any restrictions or
Lastly, when you get that bill in the mail doubling the subscription price
for CWD, remember, it goes to a good cause, the furtherance of take no
prisoners journalism in cyberspace. Pay the bill promptly, CWD is going
for a "three-peat" in next year's awards.
© 1997 Peter Langston