A teen challenges censorship on the Internet
By James Hanback Jr.
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: Several years ago, the Internet was a very different place.
It wasn't crowded with shopping opportunities, advertisements, and pornography. Instead, it offered a free exchange of ideas and information. Industry watchers called it the "Information Superhighway," and much of it belonged to kids--to those teens who had, only a year or so before the world got wired, launched their own electronic bulletin board systems or created their own computer games.
These youths joined the Internet influx very early, and they mainly used it for the very reason for which it was originally intended--gleaning information about their interests, about themselves, and about their world. These are the same kids who've had to teach their parents how to program a VCR--not to mention how to use a computer. They're typically more idealistic than their older, more experienced guardians, and they simply want a place to test and express their own identities, unfettered by the dictates of their elders.
With schools and libraries adding Internet-wired computers to their networks, the number of minors on the Net must be massive at this point. But even half a decade ago--a long time in the history of the Internet--technology observers were predicting that children would figure prominently in this new medium.
In a 1993 speech to the National Academy of Sciences Convocation on Technology and Education, noted cyber-author Bruce Sterling observed, "Cyberspace reflects our values and our faults, sometimes in terrifying exaggeration.... It doesn't matter who you are today--if you don't show up in that mirror in the next century, you're just not going to matter very much. Our kids matter. Our kids have to show up in the mirror."
In the years since Sterling's speech, the Internet has become a very public entity. It has drawn much attention because of its seeming anarchy, and parents are becoming increasingly concerned about what their children might find there. Young Internet users, of course, don't quite see it that way. As far as they're concerned, the government, some parents, and some software companies have teamed up to curtail the very freedom they've discovered on the Internet.
It's already happened once before. Two and a half years ago, the U.S. Congress introduced a bill intended to place controls on the Internet. It was February of 1996, and Congress had just enacted a revision to the 1934 Communications Act, the bill that originally created the Federal Communications Commission. The new law, called the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was geared toward protecting minors from pornographic material on the Internet. In effect, it made illegal the transmission of anything "pornographic or harmful to minors." Netizens were pissed. A new dawn of censorship, it seemed, had poked its gnarly fingers over the Internet's fast-brightening horizons. Youthful Internet users claimed they had the most at stake, and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union concurred, pointing out that the CDA could end up preventing young people from accessing useful, important information.
More than one year after the 1996 Communications Decency Act was signed and enacted, the Supreme Court struck down the law as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. The Internet community hailed it as a victory.
But the question of how to regulate content on the World Wide Web still remained, and it has only grown bigger and more complex. Two years ago, apart from the government's legislative efforts, software companies began developing what has become known as Internet filtering software, or "censorware"--programs used by parents, schools, and other organizations to restrict access to sites containing objectionable material. Although Internet filtering programs such as CYBERsitter (http://www.cybersitter.com) and Cyber Patrol (http://www.cyberpatrol.com) have been promoted for their ability to protect children and free speech at the same time, some Net users, and especially those under 18, find this idea completely offensive.
Three weeks ago, U.S. legislators passed a newer revision to the 1934 Communications Act, dubbed the Child Online Protection Act by its proponents, and the Communications Decency Act II by its detractors. The act was tacked on to the 1999 spending bill, along with other less controversial high-tech legislation, and was signed into law by President Clinton two weeks ago. It is supposed to become effective this month.
At its core, the revision requires commercial Web sites that publish material considered "harmful" to minors to refuse access to anyone under the age of 16. Once again, Netizens are pissed.
Some of them are so pissed, in fact, that they've hurled a wrench into the works of some of the more popular Internet filtering software packages. And Bennett Haselton, a 19-year-old Vanderbilt math student, is ecstatic. Haselton is the very embodiment of the young, inquisitive, outspoken Internet user--idealistic, but savvy. The founder of an organization called Peacefire (http://www.peacefire.org), he has used his group's Web site to protest--and attack--the Child Online Protection Act and youth censorship through Internet filtering software. Most recently, he posted a CDA II protest that included information on how to crack "censorware" programs like Cyber Patrol and CYBERsitter.
These filtering programs have come under fire over the past couple of years for blocking not only pornographic sites, but also sites that may be considered disagreeable for political or ideological reasons. Young Internet users may find themselves unable to download information from pages not intended solely for adults, Haselton says.
CYBERsitter, for example, has in the past blocked sites like the National Organization for Women's www.now.org, as well as some gay rights sites like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (www.glaad.org). When the Scene asked CYBERsitter if it maintains blocks on these sites, we received a rather vague e-mail reply that CYBERsitter does have a "Gay/Lesbian" option that allows parents to turn off access to sites with that "material." CYBERsitter officials did not say, however, which gay and lesbian sites are blocked, nor whether the sites were pornographic sites or informational sites devoted to gay and lesbian rights.
CYBERsitter did point out, however, that parents may override a blocked site if they choose.
All of this raises a complex, multilayered question: Who should be responsible for what influences a child's behavior, particularly in regard to new technology? Government? Parents? Children themselves? And if the answer is to be found through legislation such as the Child Online Protection Act, who will protect the First Amendment rights of those who don't need protection from potentially offensive or corruptive material?
Haselton founded Peacefire in 1996 in part as a response to the passage of the original Communications Decency Act. Although he started the group on his own, swelling membership numbers attest to young people's concerns about legislation and the Internet: Over the past two years, Peacefire has attracted approximately 3,700 members.
In short, Haselton says that the Child Online Protection Act is a gross violation of the First Amendment for anyone, but especially for youth. "I am still 19, and I think most of the other core members [of Peacefire] are teenagers," he observes. "However, it would be a mistake to think that we took this up because we, personally, are affected by [CDA II and] blocking software. As far as I know, none of the core members have parents who want to use blocking software at home, although some of their schools do use it."
Word of Peacefire's most recent censorship protest spread last week via several cyberspace underground mailing lists. Through the organization's Web site, young users across the Internet were able to download software and instructions for disabling some of the most widely known Internet filtering programs, including Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, and NetNanny. While it's true that Peacefire's software hacks are intended as protests of CDA II, Haselton admits that he doesn't consider use of blocking software in the home a First Amendment issue. "But the use of blocking software," he explains, "can still do a lot of harm without violating the First Amendment." He points to the use of blocking software in public libraries and schools as a prime example.
"We've posted a program that will display the Cyber Patrol administrator password on any computer where it is run," he said in a mailing-list e-mail message. "Cyber Patrol has just found out about it, and they are not pleased. They have about 9 million users, and the dam is about to burst."
The Cyber Patrol "administrator password" allows a user to change the software's settings, disabling it so that Web surfers may see Web sites that are usually blocked or filtered by the program.
The Learning Company, maker of Cyber Patrol, is "aware of the problem," according to spokeswoman Susan Getgood. "We have taken steps to address the hacking software [Haselton] created, and we've let our customers know about that. Fundamentally, we believe that Mr. Haselton put a lot of time and effort into his work. It's a shame he didn't spend that time and effort doing something more productive."
Bennett Haselton says it's a common assumption that he must be a troubled young man, embattled with his parents, to put so much effort into his youth-advocacy protests. But such an assumption, he says, is incorrect. "No, my parents were always laid-back about things like that," he explains. "I left home before the Internet went mainstream, but I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't have used blocking software." "We get along fine," he adds. "[My parents] are not concerned about Peacefire, except to the extent that I put a lot of time into it. I have no idea [how much time I spend]--too much."
Even so, he's seriously devoted to completing his studies. Haselton says he intends to achieve a degree in math by May. After that, he hopes to get a job in the computer industry.
Haselton is outspoken about his politics. Although he says he has little time to become active in many of the groups that share his values, he does let his classmates (and the world) know what he thinks about censorship issues via Peacefire.
As for reactions from his classmates, Haselton says they're often mixed. "Blocking software is...dicey--some people who know what I'm doing are dead-set against it, and some think it's great," he says. "Most people [at Vanderbilt] don't use the Internet as much as I do, and didn't hear about CDA I or II. But as for the people who use the Internet and know what CDA I and II are, most of them are against both."
Haselton's advocacy arose, he says, after he discovered that no one else was speaking out for minors with regard to First Amendment issues. "What got me interested in First Amendment rights for minors was the debate over the Communications Decency Act in 1996. Many people on the Internet advocated sacrificing the First Amendment rights of minors in order to protect the rights of adults, and blocking software came to represent that point of view.
"The Electronic Frontier Foundation took the position that public-school students had no legal recourse if they were blocked from a Web site. Nowadays, of course, that question is much fuzzier. There were no organizations representing minors' points of view at the time, so Peacefire was formed."
Some might argue that minors are denied access to printed pornography, for instance, precisely because they're minors; in such cases, the right to free exchange of information is overridden. If Haselton does, indeed, protest the exclusion of minors from First Amendment rights in cyberspace, why not also oppose their lack of access to pornographic magazines?
"Well, if someone says minors aren't supposed to have protection under the law because they're minors, what's the underlying rationale?" he replies. "If you keep pressing, the details come out: Minors shouldn't have the same rights because they are less intelligent, or less experienced. That's where I disagree with the assumptions. I don't think that IQ level should be a requirement for First Amendment rights."
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Haselton, the fact remains that parents have the right to determine what's acceptable for their children. In this regard, isn't filtering software the best solution to regulating the Internet? Shouldn't parents have the final say over what their children can and can't see on the Internet? Not necessarily, Haselton says. "The whole point of what we're doing is that you don't need to be 'protected' from anything that's not dangerous. If we thought uncensored Internet access was dangerous, we wouldn't be doing this.... In fact, we would go so far as to object to the use of the words 'kid protection' software to describe programs like Cyber Patrol.
"When a teen forgets to wear a bicycle helmet, that's a safety issue," he adds. "When they visit Playboy.com, that's a bad-taste issue. What is the reason that people think it's 'dangerous'? If a teen has lost his virginity, does that make it safe for him to visit Playboy? If teachers and parents are telling a student that his 'gayness' is a disease that can be cured, does that make it true? Is it only true if their parents think it's true?"
Haselton argues that the Internet offers the same kind of open-mindedness today that young people found in other forms of popular culture during the 1950s and 1960s. "If this software had been around in the 1950s, it probably would have blocked pages about civil rights and interracial marriage," Haselton says. "And children would have figured out a way to get around the software then too. Children are generally more open-minded than adults. Not smarter, just more open-minded--which is why it's important to protect the rights of people under 18 to hold their own opinion.
"So the publication of censorware-circumventing instructions was partly a protest against CDA II, but it was also a stand-alone action in itself. We have the instructions up simply because a lot of people need them."
Not surprisingly, CYBERsitter spokesman Marc Kanter disagrees. "It is very easy for kids to intentionally or unintentionally access material that in most circumstances is not suitable for them to view," he says. "For example, an innocent search on words like 'toys,' 'teens,' 'Beenie Babies,' or 'girls' will bring up many adult-oriented sites. Accessing www.whitehouse.com also leads to an adult site. [www.whitehouse.gov is the Web site address for the U.S. president's home.] Most parents object to this material being so easily available and want to restrict it."
For his part, Haselton says a greater voice from youth on the Internet could actually create some social changes that would discourage some purveyors of bad taste online.
"I think that if minors have more First Amendment rights and more representation in society, then those other social changes will come about much more easily," he explains. "Gallup and Time have both concluded that younger people, especially minors, are much more likely to support equal rights for gays, acceptance of interracial marriage (which over 60 percent of whites opposed in 1994), protection of the environment, AIDS research, etc., than older generations are.
"It wasn't just naiveté, either," he continues. "Time went into the trenches to interview kids who lived in dangerous neighborhoods and knew the realities of racism and gang wars, to ask them if they agreed with their parents' views of race."
In addition to allowing youthful users to disable Internet filtering software, Peacefire's protest page offers some pointed parody as well. For instance, Haselton has included an ad, and a download, for a fake product dubbed "WINnocence: Innocence-preserving software for Windows." The logo depicts a blindfolded girl with a halo over her head. If downloaded, the WINnocence software, a parody of commercial packages, blocks sites like http://www.glaad.org (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), http://www.now.org (National Organization for Women), and http://www.iglhrc.org (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Coalition)--three sites that Haselton discovered were blocked by CYBERsitter in 1996. WINnocence then redirects the user's browser to an ex-gay ministry site called "Hope for Change."
Although users may still download the software from Peacefire, Haselton reported on his Web site that he removed the link from the home page because many people who downloaded it didn't understand that the software was a joke. On his Internet site, Haselton explains the confusion on a page labeled "Humor-impaired?"
More controversial, of course, is CPCrack, the Peacefire-distributed utility that allows users to crack Cyber Patrol. When run on a system with Cyber Patrol, the program displays the software's administrator password. Once a user knows the password, he or she can log into Cyber Patrol and disable the program by clicking on an option labeled "Deputy Bypass."
In addition to the Cyber Patrol crack, the Peacefire Web site provides information on cracking and uninstalling at least seven other Internet filtering programs, including CYBERsitter, SurfWatch, BESS, NetNanny, WebSENSE, SmartFilter, and I-Gear.
While Haselton says he has taken up an altruistic cause in defense of the First Amendment, and in defense of a teen's right to information, officials with Internet filtering software companies say he's only making a desperate plea for attention.
In a 1996 interview with Wired News, a spokesman for CYBERsitter said that Haselton had "made it his mission" to hurt CYBERsitter's reputation in the software industry.
Haselton was accused that year of illegally obtaining CYBERsitter's list of blocked Internet sites, which the company closely guards. At the time, in an interview with Wired News, the teen said he did not illegally obtain the list, but merely installed the software and kept a close watch on which sites he could and could not access.
"That was when we posted a partial list of blocked sites," Haselton explains. "It was actually very short. Just some of the big-name ones."
By 1997, Haselton had written a program that decrypted and exposed the entire list of Web sites blocked by CYBERsitter. After that, other Webmasters downloaded the program and decrypted the list for themselves, eventually posting the entire list of CYBERsitter-blocked sites on their own pages.
After Haselton published his efforts on the Peacefire site in 1996, Solid Oak, the maker of CYBERsitter, added the organization to its list of blocked sites and requested that the Web site's Internet service provider, Media3, remove Peacefire from its server. To date, this hasn't happened, even though CYBERsitter reportedly threatened to block all Media3 domains if the company did not comply.
At another time in 1996, CYBERsitter reportedly threatened a lawsuit against Haselton for what he says was a critical article posted on Peacefire about the CYBERsitter software. Haselton insists that he has never published the entire list of CYBERsitter-blocked sites on Peacefire, although he says the lawsuit threats intensified after he made the decryption software available for download.
CYBERsitter officials recently told the Scene that they are aware of Haselton's dislike for their company but are no longer "interested" in Haselton or Peacefire. "We have maintained for almost two years that Bennett Haselton and Peacefire members in general regularly made available information on how to disable and/or hack CYBERsitter and other filtering programs," said CYBERsitter's Kanter in an e-mail to the Scene. "Mr. Haselton steadfastly denied ever making hacking information publicly available and portrayed us as bullies for having made those allegations.
"Now it appears that Mr. Haselton's 15 minutes of fame have long since expired, so he has decided to publicly reveal his true agenda in an effort to once again gain some notoriety. That is to deny parents the ability to determine what their children have access to on the Internet.
"Frankly, no one is interested in Haselton's juvenile antics anymore, and neither are we."
Peacefire has also reportedly been blocked by Cyber Patrol, although Susan Getgood says that the company has never blocked the NOW site, or any sites promoting gay rights. "You'll find that Cyber Patrol does not include those sites on its CyberNOT list," Getgood explains. "The sites we block must meet 12 criteria, which sites like the National Organization for Women do not meet."
She adds that parents have a great deal of control over what Cyber Patrol blocks and what it does not. "We are an objective group of people, and everyone has a different opinion of what is and is not acceptable. Parents are allowed to choose by category what they want to block. For example, if they want to block sites with partial nudity, that's a choice they can make."
Getgood also says that Cyber Patrol allows parents to set up a file that allows certain sites through, even though that site might meet some of the criteria that would ordinarily cause it to be blocked. "Our software allows people to make choices based on their own values," she asserts.
The Child Online Protection Act is being hailed as Internet history, a potential defining moment in a new medium. Ultimately, the hoopla over government's attempt to protect minors from harmful material on the Internet, and the debate over whether software companies are doing the right thing, may be moot. For instance, the very youth who are ostensibly being protected by CDA II and filtering software are often the ones who best understand the technology, what it's capable of, and how to get around it. If a child goes online looking for pornography--the 1990s equivalent of sneaking a peek at the old man's Playboy magazines--he more than likely will find it. In the end, Internet filtering software runs a great risk of becoming the cyberspace equivalent of the childproof medicine bottle cap, or a programmable VCR: Only children know how to use it.
As for legislation, the new Child Online Protection Act isn't going to be very effective even if it remains enacted as law, according to an Oct. 16 article about CDA II in the San Jose Mercury News. Why? Because loose wording inside the law exempts search engine sites from prosecution.
According to the story, by Mercury News writer Steve Buel, large search engines like Yahoo! and Excite were concerned that they might be prosecuted because their sites probe other sites for keywords, whether those sites are pornographic in nature or not. The display of four-letter words or sexually graphic material via a search engine may then be unavoidable. Search engines must, therefore, not be liable for the descriptive comments of other sites that appear as results on the search pages.
The wording of the new law is loose enough that just about any Web site could add a search form to its pages and, thus, exempt itself from prosecution. Also, sites that operate outside the United States are exempt from the law, which means minors could still gain easy access to pornographic sites based in other countries--and there are plenty of them.
What's more, the Internet is a constantly growing medium. There are hundreds more sites on the World Wide Web than there were a couple of years ago. It's virtually impossible for Internet filtering software, parents, or the government to view and catalog all those that they feel must be avoided. New sites pop up every day--and CDA II only affects "commercial" sites.
"Kids need media they can go places with," cyber-author Bruce Sterling observed in 1993. "Kids need a medium of their own--a medium that does not involve a determined attempt by cynical adult merchandisers to wrench the last nickel and quarter from their small vulnerable hands.
"The computer revolution, the media revolution, is not going to stop during the lifetime of anyone in this room.... [T]he Internet was a Cold War military project...and look at it now. No one really planned it this way."
In other words, the future of the Internet, regardless of laws, filtering software, or concerned parents, may be the same as its past. It is a fast-growing medium, too fertile to gauge and predict. It cannot be restrained.
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