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Wired News
Wednesday, August 19, 1998
4:00am

Filtering Out The Filters

A university student makes a point about censorship on the Net
by breaking Netscape's content-filtering option

by Chris Oakes, chriso@wired.com

A 20-year-old college student took a stand against what he felt was Net censorship on Tuesday, and his protest took the form of code.

University of Massachusetts student Brian Ristuccia posted software on his Web site designed to disable a Netscape browser feature that allows parents and others to block certain sites from view.

"I think the only surefire way of not seeing content on the Net you don't want to see is by not going to [it]", he said. "No amount of technology is ever going to be the substitute for common sense."

Ristuccia targeted the first implementation of a site-blocking feature in Netscape Communicator 4.06, called the Platform for Internet Content Selection, or PICS.

Using PICS, a parent, librarian, teacher, or employer can deem Internet sites inappropriate on a particular browser. The feature uses a password system to prevent users from disabling PICS.

After tinkering with his Unix version of Communicator, Ristuccia found he could edit the browser's preferences file and easily override the password scheme. Since making the modification is too tricky for some users or may not be technically feasible, Ristuccia posted a script to do the work automatically. The trick works on Unix, Windows NT, and Windows 95, but he said it had not been tested on either a Mac browser or Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Ristuccia had already created a proxy server that, if visited before the blocked sites, allowed users to view "censored" content. He posted the code for the server software so others could establish other filter-defeating proxy servers, he said.

Netscape has not verified Ristuccia's claims, said product manager Edith Gong. If they are true, she said, the vulnerability doesn't necessarily amount to a flaw. If it is verified, she said, Netscape would address it by informing customers about preventing changes to preferences or by providing browser updates.

Gong said that in supporting PICS, Netscape "is saying ... 'Look, it's an optional feature in the product. If you want to control sites, it's your choice.'"

Even optional filters don't sit right with Ristuccia. PICS, and related software can be used to censor political and religious views, he said. "It's a full-fledged censorship tool."

Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and former associate director of the ACLU, agreed. Ristuccia's move spotlights an important freedom of speech issue in the Internet age.

"I'm not saying individuals should be prohibited from using [PICS and filtering software] for personal use", said Steinhardt. "But its use in public institutions like libraries is inappropriate and, I think, unconstitutional.

"[Ristuccia] has identified our greatest fear, which is that these protocols will be used by libraries, by schools -- by government in general -- to censor information."


Copyright © 1998 by Wired Digital Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.