February 6, 1998 5:15 PM PST

Net filter firm under fire

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Brian Milburn makes a good living selling parents a filtering program for Net porn. But with his success comes heated criticism that his product, Cybersitter, is a censorship tool.

This week his company is being accused of trying to block communication from those critics as well.

According to MCI's data security unit and Internet service provider Valinet, a woman is alleging that an email account from Cybersitter's parent company, Solid Oak, bombarded her with 446 email messages after she sent Milburn, the company's president, a handful of email messages claiming Cybersitter "does not allow the parents to make the choices about what their children access."

Sarah Salls of Greenfield, Massachusetts, says the alleged "email bomb" only ended when her Net access provider put a block on the sender, "support@solidoak.com," according to Valinet's mail logs.

"I downloaded the trial version of the product to see if all of the allegations were true--and they were true. You can't access anything that has to do with gay rights," Salls said. "They don?t make the list of blocked sites available. They are selling their product to an uninformed consumer. All I was suggesting is that they reexamine their product."

Milburn charges that Salls was harassing him by sending eight email messages to his private corporate account and some others to the support account. Such notes are supposed to be sent to a "feedback" account, he noted. Solid Oak had asked her to stop at least four times, according to Milburn, and it also contacted Valinet. The ISP said it refused to act because it didn't deem her behavior "harassment."

Salls claims to have only sent a total of four messages to accounts including Milburn's, support, and feedback. She would have sent just one, but she said she kept getting an automated response stating that she was sending "unwanted email to a private email account," even from support and feedback. Soon after, she says, her email account was locked up with hundreds of messages from "support@solidoak.com," which Valinet's logs confirmed. "They wasted our bandwidth and mail server's resources for our other 5,000 clients," said Michael Warchut, Valinet's systems administrator. "We don't tolerate that. I put them on our antispam list."

Milburn wouldn't confirm that the messages originated from Cybersitter's parent company, either intentionally or not. But in general, he said, he doesn't like receiving complaints through his corporate email address.

"Certain people aren't going to get the hint," he said. "Maybe if they get the email 500 times, they'll get it through their heads.

"Maybe now she won't send us email anymore," he added. "They can send it to 'feedback.' Someone will review it, and if it is legitimate, it will be responded to. If they send it to my private email account, they're going to get what they get."

This seemingly David and Goliath battle is part of bigger, long-time squabble. Milburn's frustration is not targeted at Salls alone. She recently has joined a larger group that has questioned him for more than a year regarding marketing statements about Cybersitter.

Although 1.3 million people use Cybersitter, an organized group of teenagers and some adults has made a pastime out of slamming it as "censorware." Members of the online free speech group Peacefire send Milburn demanding email messages. The group also has published his personal email address online and even published a tool to help Net users read a coded list of sites Cybersitter blocks.

Peacefire has received widespread publicity for its actions to promote First Amendment rights in cyberspace. Milburn sums them up to a band of "kids" who have wasted his time challenging him about a product they don't even use. He says he would rather focus his attention on his customers' analysis of the product.

Some of Peacefire's claims have been proven true, however. Cybersitter has confirmed that it blocks sites such as the National Organization for Women, and that it keeps its list of blocked sites encrypted--not even paying customers can see it.

"Since we spend upwards of $20,000 per month to maintain it, it doesn't make a lot of sense to make it available," Milburn said. "We don't want to respond to Peacefire anymore because we're not going to make them happy anyway. We try and earn a living and make a good product, and we get sick and tired of these people harassing us."

Whether it was Solid Oak or Salls that did the alleged harassing, many lawmakers want to make it a crime to inundate people with unwanted email.

Congress is working on legislation to ban unsolicited commercial bulk email. And many states are moving to pass laws that criminalize email harassment. In addition, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated the "enforcement of federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking in obscenity, stalking, and harassment by means of computer."

 

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