Declan McCullagh on Fri, 20 Dec 96 22:13 MET

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nettime: The CyberSitter Diaper Change, from The Netly News

[From this morning's Netly News. Check out the HTML version of the article
at for links to the threatening letters, etc. --Declan]

The Netly News
December 20, 1996

The CyberSitter Diaper Change
By Declan McCullagh (
        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
   and culture.
       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
        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
        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,,,,,,,,,, and Now, sadly, some
   libraries are using it. Solid Oak claims 900,000 registered users.
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