Washington, DC -- This is a tale of broken codes, betrayal of a social contract, morality run amuck, and a kind of twisted John Le Carre meets the Crying Game encounter.
For a range of companies producing so-called "blocking software" designed to keep kids from accessing undesirable material in cyberspace, the road to such a moral high ground turns out to be a slippery slope. These programs, spawned in the wake of the hysteria over how much porn Junior might find on the Net, have chosen the role of online guardians. The resulting array of applications, including names like SurfWatch, CyberPatrol, NetNanny, and CyberSitter, acts as a kind of digital moral compass for parents, educators, paranoid Congressmen, and puritanical PTAs.
Install the programs and Junior can't access porn. No fuss, no muss, no bother. "Parental empowerment" is the buzzword. Indeed, it was these programs that helped sway the three-judge panel in Philly to knock down the Communications Decency Act as unconstitutional.
But there's a darker side. A close look at the actual range of sites blocked by these apps shows they go far beyond just restricting "pornography". Indeed, some programs ban access to newsgroups discussing gay and lesbian issues or topics such as feminism. Entire *domains* are restricted, such as HotWired. Even a web site dedicated to the safe use of fireworks is blocked.
All this might be reasonable, in a twisted sort of way, if parents were actually aware of what the programs banned. But here's the rub: Each company holds its database of blocked sites in the highest security. Companies fight for market share based on how well they upgrade and maintain thhat blocking database. All encrypt that list to protect it from prying eyes --- until now.
Dispatch received a copy of each of those lists. With the codes cracked, we now held the keys to the kingdom: the results of hundreds, no, thousands of manhours of smut-surfing dedicated to digging up the most obscene and pornographic sites in the world. And it's in our possession. But it didn't come easy...
I tried to stumble to the door and an arm reached out and gently shoved me back to my table. At the end of that arm was a leggy redhead; she had a fast figure and even faster smile. There was a wildness about her eyes and I knew it was the crank. But something else wasn't quite right.
As I fought with my booze-addled brain, struggling to focus my eyes, I noticed her adam's apple.
"Who needs this distraction", I thought, again wondering what kind of comic hellhole I fell into that put me in the middle of yet another bizarre adventure.
"I have something for you", she/he deadpanned. Red had the voice of a baritone and a body you could break bricks on.
No introductions, no chit-chat. This was strictly business and for a moment I thought I was being set up by the missing spooks. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
Out from Red's purse came a CD-ROM. She/he shoved the jewel box across the table. It was labeled: "The keys to the kingdom". What the fuck was this? I must be on Candid Camera.
Red anticipated my question: "I can't say; I won't say. Just take it, use it. That's all I'm supposed to say." And she/he got up, stretched those mile-high legs, and loped into the night.
The next morning I slipped the disc in my Mac and the secret innards of the net-blocking programs flowed across my screen. CyberPatrol, SurfWatch, NetNanny, CyberSitter. Their encrypted files -- thousands and thousands of web pages and newsgroups with the best porn on the Net. Not surprising, really -- the net-blocking software companies collect smut-reports from customers and pay college kids to grope around the Net for porn.
This shit was good. Even half-awake with a major league hangover, I could tell the smut-censoring software folks would go ballistic over Red's delivery. To Junior, these lists would be a one-stop-porn-shop.
Susan Getgood from CyberPatrol emphasized this to Dispatch. She said: "The printout of the 'Cybernot' list never *ever* leaves this building. It's under lock and key... Once it left this building we'd see it posted on the Net tomorrow. It would be contributing to the problem it was designed to solve -- [it would be] the best source of indecent material anywhere."
She's right. A recent version of CyberPatrol's so-called "Cybernot" list featured 4,800 web sites and 250 newsgroups. That's a lot of balloon-breasted babes.
CyberPatrol is easily the largest and most extensive smut-blocker. It assigns each undesirable web site to at least one and often multiple categories that range from "violence/profanity" to "sexual acts", "drugs and drug culture", and "gross depictions".
The last category, which includes pix of syphilis-infected monkeys and greyhounds tossed in a garbage dump, has some animal-rights groups in a tizzy. They told Dispatch that having portions of their sites labeled as "gross depictions" is defamatory -- and they intend to sue the bastards.
"We're somewhat incensed", said Christina Springer, managing director of Envirolink, a Pittsburgh-based company that provides web space to environmental and animal-rights groups. "Pending whether [our attorney] thinks we have a case or not, we will actually pursue legal actions against CyberPatrol."
Said Springer: "Animal rights is usually the first step that children take in being involved in the environment. Ignoring companies like Mary Kay that do these things to animals and allowing them to promote themselves like good corporate citizens is a 'gross depiction.'"
CyberPatrol's Getgood responded: "We sent a note back to [the Envirolink director] and haven't heard back from him. Apparently he's happy with our decision. I still think the monkey with its eye gouged out is a gross depiction."
Rick O'Donnell from the Progress and Freedom Foundation is amazed that Envirolink would threaten legal action. "It's new technology. It's trial-and-error... There will be glitches."
"Filtering software firms have the right to choose whatever site they want to block since it's voluntary... Government-imposed [blocking] is censorship. Privately-chosen is editing, discernment, freedom of choice", he said.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is as unhappy as Envirolink. When Dispatch spoke with GLAAD's Alan Klein and rattled off a list of online gay and lesbian resources that the overeager blocking software censored, he was horrified.
"We take this very seriously", said Klein. "Lesbian and gay users shouldn't be treated as second-class users on the Net. These companies need to understand that they can't discriminate against lesbian and gay users... We will take an active stance on this."
CyberPatrol blocks a mirror of the Queer Resources Directory (QRD) at http://qrd.tcp.com/ and USENET newsgroups including clari.news.gays (home to AP and Reuters articles) alt.journalism.gay-press, and soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi, Red's list revealed. CyberSitter also bans alt.politics.homosexual and the QRD at qrd.org. NetNanny blocks IRC chatrooms such as #gaysf and #ozgay, presumably discussions by San Francisco and Australian gays.
GLAAD told Dispatch they were especially surprised that CyberPatrol blocked gay political and journalism groups since the anti-defamation organization has a representative on the "Cybernot" oversight committee, which meets every few weeks to set policies. However, Dispatch learned the oversight group never actually sees the previously top-secret "Cybernot" list. They don't know what's *really* banned.
Why should alt.journalism.gay-press, for instance, be blocked? There's no excuse for it, said GLAAD's Klein. "A journalism newsgroup shouldn't be blocked. It's completely unacceptable... This is such an important resource for gay youth around the country. If it weren't for the Net, maybe thousands of gay teens around the country would not have come out and known there were resources for them."
He's right. Even a single directory at the QRD, such as the Health/AIDS area, has vital information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AIDS Book Review Journal, and AIDS Treatment News.
In response to Dispatch's questions about these sites being blocked, CyberPatrol's Getgood said: "It doesn't block materials based on sexual preference. If a site would be blocked if there are two heterosexuals kissing, we'd block it if there are two homosexuals kissing."
Fine, but we're not talking about gay porn here. What about some of the political groups? "We'll look into it", said Getgood.
NetNanny is just as bad, argues GLAAD's Loren Javier, who called the software's logging features "dangerous". (The program lets parents review what their kids have been doing online.) "If you have someone who has homophobic parents, it gives them a way of keeping tabs on their kid and possibly making it worse for their children", said Javier.
Worse yet, CyberPatrol doesn't store the complete URL for blocking -- it abbreviates the last three characters. So when it blocks the "CyberOS" gay video site by banning http://www.webcom.com/~cyb, children are barred from attending the first "Cyber High School" at ~cyberhi, along with 16 other accounts that start with "cyb". In attacking Shawn Knight's occult resources at http://loiosh.andrew.cmu.edu/~sha, the program cuts off 23 "sha" accounts at Carnegie Mellon University, including Derrick "Shadow" Brashear's web page on Pittsburgh radio stations.
The geeks at CMU's School of Computer Science had fun with this. In March they cobbled together a "Banned by CyberPatrol" logo that they merrily added to their blocked homepages: http://nut.compose.cs.cmu.edu/images/ban3.gif
NetNanny also has a fetish for computer scientists. For instance, it blocks all mailing lists run out of cs.colorado.edu -- including such salacious ones as parallel-compilers, systems+software, and computer-architecture. Guess those computer geeks talk blue when they're not pumping out C code.
Dispatch asked Getgood why CyberPatrol blocks access to other seemingly unobjectionable web sites including the University of Newcastle's computer science department, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's censorship archive, and the League for Programming Freedom at MIT, a group that opposes software patents.
Getgood replied via email: "I'll forward this message to our Internet Research Supervisor and have her look into the specific sites you mention..." She said there is a "fair process" for appeals of unwarranted blocking.
But CyberPatrol doesn't stop at EFF and MIT. It also goes after gun and Second Amendment pages including http://www.shooters.com/, http://www.taurususa.com/, http://126.96.36.199/, and http://www-199.webnexus.com/nra-sv/, according to a recent "Cybernot" list.
The last site is run by the National Rifle Association (NRA) Members' Council of Silicon Valley, and bills itself as "the NRA's grass roots political action and education group for the San Jose, Santa Clara, Milpitas, and surrounding areas".
Peter Nesbitt, an air-traffic controller who volunteers as part of the Silicon Valley NRA group, says "it's terrible" that CyberPatrol blocks gun-rights web sites. "The people who are engaging in censoring gun rights or gun advocates groups are the opposition who want to censor us to further their anti-gun agenda."
An unlikely bedfellow, the National Organization of Women (NOW) ain't too pleased neither. Of course, they're unlikely to feel any other way -- CyberSitter blocks their web site at www.now.org.
Not to be outdone, NetNanny blocks feminist newsgroups while CyberSitter slams anything dealing with "bisexual" or "lesbian themes". CyberPatrol beats 'em all by going after alt.feminism, alt.feminism.individualism, soc.feminism, clari.news.women, soc.support.pregnancy.loss, alt.homosexual.lesbian, and soc.support.fat-acceptance.
Dispatch reached Kim Gandy, NOW's executive vice president, at home as she was preparing dinner for her 3-year old daughter. Gandy charged the companies with "suppressing information" about feminism. She said: "As a mother myself, I'd like to limit my kids from looking at pornography but I wouldn't want my teenage daughter [prevented] from reading and participating in online discussions of important current issues relating to womens rights."
An indignant NOW? Let 'em rant, says CyberSitter's Brian Milburn. "If NOW doesn't like it, tough... We have not and will not bow to any pressure from any organization that disagrees with our philosophy."
Unlike the others, CyberSitter doesn't hide the fact that they're trying to enforce a moral code. "We don't simply block pornography. That's not the intention of the product", said Milburn. "The majority of our customers are strong family-oriented people with traditional family values. Our product is sold by Focus on the Family because we allow the parents to select fairly strict guidelines." (Focus on the Family, of course, is a conservative group that strongly supports the CDA.)
Dispatch particularly enjoyed CyberSitter's database, which reads like a fucking how-to of conversations the programmers thought distasteful:
[up][the,his,her,your,my][ass,cunt,twat][,hole] [wild,wet,net,cyber,have,making,having,getting,giving,phone][sex...] [,up][the,his,her,your,my][butt,cunt,pussy,asshole,rectum,anus] [,suck,lick][the,his,her,your,my][cock,dong,dick,penis,hard on...] [gay,queer,bisexual][male,men,boy,group,rights,community,activities...] [gay,queer,homosexual,lesbian,bisexual][society,culture] [you][are][,a,an,too,to][stupid,dumb,ugly,fat,idiot,ass,fag,dolt,dummy]
CyberSitter's Milburn added: "I wouldn't even care to debate the issues if gay and lesbian issues are suitable for teenagers. If they [parents] want it they can buy SurfWatch... We filter anything that has to do with sex. Sexual orientation [is about sex] by virtue of the fact that it has sex in the name."
That's the rub. It's a bait and switch maneuver. The smut-censors say they're going after porn, but they quietly restrict political speech.
All this proves is that anyone setting themselves up as a kind of digital moral compass quickly finds themselves plunged into a kind of virtual Bermuda Triangle, where vertigo reigns and you hope to hell you pop out the other side still on course. Technology is never a substitute for conscience.
And for anyone thinking of making an offer for the disc, forget it. Like a scene out of Mission Impossible, we came back from a late-night binge to find the CD-ROM melted and the drive smoldering. Thank God there's a backup somewhere. Red, get in touch.
Meeks and McCullagh out...