Copyright as censorship
- ---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 20 Dec 1996 12:53:58 -0800 (PST)
From: Declan McCullagh <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: The CyberSitter Diaper Change, from The Netly News
[From this morning's Netly News. Check out the HTML version of the article
at netlynews.com for links to the threatening letters, etc. --Declan]
The Netly News
December 20, 1996
The CyberSitter Diaper Change
By Declan McCullagh (email@example.com)
Brian Milburn is angry. The president of Solid Oak Software,
makers of the CyberSitter Net-filtering software, has seen his
company's product come under heavy fire this year. Its offense?
Critics say that CyberSitter has reached far beyond its mandate of
porn-blocking and instead has censored innocuous, even invaluable web
I admit I'm one of its critics. In a CyberWire Dispatch that
Brock Meeks and I published in July, we revealed that the censorware
bans such places as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights
Commission and the online home of the National Organization for Women.
Our Dispatch showed the world -- or at least our readers -- that the
makers of CyberSitter have a clear political agenda. The article
prompted follow-ups in CyberTimes and the National Law Journal and an
editorial in the Washington Post with an exchange of letters to the
editor between a NOW executive and a representative of Focus on the
Family, a conservative group that markets CyberSitter.
To Milburn's mind, our act of revealing the truth about his
company's product was, literally, criminal. In August, he told us that
he had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a criminal
investigation into the publication of our article. He was particularly
upset with one paragraph that included a fragment of his database
demonstrating that CyberSitter expressly bans info about gay society
He wrote: "Your willful reverse engineering and subsequent
publishing of copyrighted source code is a clear violation of US
Copyright law. While we would easily prevail in a civil court in
seeking damages... we will seek felony criminal prosecution under 17
USCS sect 503(a) of the Copyright Act, and are preparing documentation
to submit with the criminal complaint to FBI [sic]."
Milburn was upset because CyberSitter's database is scrambled to
prevent kiddies from grabbing addresses of porn sites from it. It's
lightweight encryption, sure, but just enough to frustrate Junior. The
scrambled database also allows Solid Oak to add and delete banned
sites without the user's knowledge -- something that we believe is a
dangerous practice. Now, I should point out here that neither I nor
Brock did the actual decrypting; we had received a copy of the
descrambled filter list from a confidential source.
In any event, Dispatch's attorneys replied to Milburn, saying
that the article was "protected by the full force of the First
Amendment to the United States Constitution" and fell squarely within
the copyright act's "fair use" provisions. We never heard back from
him or the FBI.
But that nastygram from Milburn wasn't his last. As criticism of
CyberSitter becomes more intense, he's stepped up his counterattacks,
threatening legal action, blocking critics' sites, or both.
Take Bennett Haselton, a college student who cobbled together a
site called Peacefire in August. This fall he started an
anti-CyberSitter page that listed some of the more controversial
actions of the software.
Milburn complained. On December 6 he wrote to Haselton's Internet
provider, Media3 Technologies, and tried to persuade them to give
Peacefire the boot. His e-mail said: "One of your subscribers has made
it his mission in life to defame our product as he appearantly [sic]
has a problem with parents wishing to filter their children's access
to the internet." Another charge was that Haselton had linked to a
copy of our Dispatch.
Solid Oak then added Peacefire and Media3 to its list of blocked
sites. To Marc Kanter, Solid Oak's marketing director, it was
necessary. "The site directly has links to areas that have our source
code decoded on it.... There's no reason that our users should be able
to go to sites that effectually inactivate our program," he said.
Milburn also accused Haselton of reverse-engineering CyberSitter
to get the text of its database -- that is, of being the confidential
source for the CyberWire Dispatch. "Reverse engineering had to have
been done in order to get the information, and we believe Mr. Haselton
was the one who did it," Milburn wrote.
Note to Millburn: Haselton wasn't our source.
Then there's the case of Glen Roberts. His web page giving
instructions on how to disable CyberSitter is now banned -- as is his
Internet service provider. That's because CyberSitter differs from its
competitors CyberPatrol and SurfWatch, which can restrict access by
URL; instead, CyberSitter has to block access to the entire ripco.com
So what's my problem, really? If people don't want to use
CyberSitter or other nanny apps, they don't have to. It's voluntary.
It's effective. It protects children, and it sure is better than the
Communications Decency Act.
I have one major objection to all of the software filters
currently on the market: Consumers have no way of knowing what's being
blocked. Without knowing what's on the filter list, parents can't know
what Junior will or won't be seeing. When reporters who try to reveal
that information are faced with potential criminal investigations, the
press's ability to shed light on these companies is threatened.
Such programs also give parents near-complete control over what
their children can and can't read. Traditionally, kids have been able
to browse the stacks of a library away from parental supervision. But
when the library is online, access can be completely controlled by
censorware. Pity the closeted gay son of homophobic parents, prevented
by CyberSitter from accessing soc.support.youth.lesbian-gay-bi.
Finally, it's a kind of intellectual bait-and-switch. The "smut
blockers" grab power by playing to porn, then they wield it to advance
a right-wing, conservative agenda. Family values activists would never
have been able to pass a law that blocks as many sites as CyberSitter
does. Besides censoring alt.censorship, it also 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 using it. Solid Oak claims 900,000 registered users.
------- End of forwarded message -------