April 22, 1997 6:30 PM PDT

Teen exposes blocking software

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A teenager is using his Web site to help expose the list of sites blocked by one brand of filtering software intended to protect minors from illicit Net material.

Using the "CYBERsitter codebreaker" from 18-year-old Bennett Haselton, surfers can now decode the list of all Net sites blocked by Solid Oak's Cybersitter software.

Haselton--the founder of a teen organization called Peacefire that fights Net censorship--contends that the software violates free-speech rights for adults and teenagers. He claims the software is also falsely advertised because it promises parents the "ability to limit their children's access to objectionable material on the Internet," but also blocks other content on the Net.

Haselton's campaign to get around Cybersitter has Solid Oak's president seeing red.

Solid Oak denies Haselton's charges and is investigating the legality of the decoding program. "He doesn?t know anything, and he's just a kid," Solid Oak president Brian Milburn said today. "We have never misrepresented our product--ever."

Haselton's "codebreaker" can be used to crack a coded list of the sites that Cybersitter blocks. The list is distributed to subscribers to notify users what sites are being blocked. Subscribers pay $39.95 for the software.

The software blocks sites containing any words describing genitals, sex, nudity, porn, bombs, guns, suicide, racial slurs, and other violent, sexual, and derogatory terms.

The list also blocks an array of sites about gay and lesbian issues, including PlanetOut and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Cybersitter even blocks the National Organization for Women because it contains information about lesbianism, Solid Oak stated. "The NOW site has a bunch of lesbian stuff on it, and our users don't want it," Milburn said.

The software also filters any site that contains the phrase "Don't buy CYBERsitter" as well as Haselton's own site and any reference to his name.

Milburn argued Haselton's campaign is hurting the product's marketability and hinted that the company will stop him, but wouldn't say exactly how.

"We have users who think they purchased a secure product. This is costing us considerably," he added. "But we're not going to let [Bennett] break the law."

He did point out that Haselton's program to decode the software may violate its licensing agreement, which states: "Unauthorized reverse-engineering of the software, whether for educational, fair use, or other reason is expressly forbidden. Unauthorized disclosure of Cybersitter operational details, hacks, work-around methods, blocked sites, and blocked words or phrases are expressly prohibited."

Haselton is undaunted by the suggestion of legal repercussion. "I've talked to a lawyer who offered to represent me in the event that Cybersitter goes after me."

A junior at Vanderbilt University, Haselton contends that the software doesn?t protect kids from smut but just keeps them from learning new ideas.

"Blocking software is not the solution to all of our problems. What's dangerous is not protecting [teenagers' free] speech on the Net as well. This is the age when you form your opinions about social issues, human rights, and religion. We need to keep free ideas on the Net for people under 18."

Haselton's organization is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit being argued today in New York state, the American Library Association vs. Governor George Pataki. The case was filed to strike down a state law similar to the Communications Decency Act that prohibits making indecent material available to minors over the Net.

 

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