403 Forbidden  by Jonathan Wallace

Cybersitter's Unspectacular Ethics

Solid Oak Software, a California company, recently added my Webzine, The Ethical Spectacle, www.spectacle.org, to the list of sites blocked by its Cybersitter software. Solid Oak markets Cybersitter as a shield against pornography, hate speech and criminal activity on the Net, but the Spectacle is a monthly collection of thought pieces concentrating on the intersection (or collision) of ethics, law and politics in our society. The whole experience illustrates very nicely how blocking software, touted by some as a reasonable alternative to government intervention, can profoundly harm our freedom of speech.

Last summer, Solid Oak threatened two well-respected Net journalists, Declan McCullagh and Brock Meeks, with prosecution for writing a piece about the company's expansive and surprising blocking practices. Soon after, Bennett Haselton, a student at Vanderbilt and founder of Peacefire, an anti-censorship organization for young people (www.peacefire.org), wrote an essay pointing out that Cybersitter blocked sites like the National Organization for Women (www.now.org) and Mother Jones magazine (www.mojo.com). Solid Oak's president, Brian Milburn, responded by blocking Haselton's Web pages and calling him an "aspiring felon." I wrote to Milburn, objecting to his bullying behavior. Next, I added a "Don't Buy Cybersitter" button to the Spectacle top page, linked to a copy of Haselton's essay, with some added thoughts of my own and links to other pages blocked by Cybersitter. Solid Oak blocked the Spectacle a few weeks later.

I wrote to Milburn requesting an explanation and received a response: "Do not contact this company again." I learned from Haselton that Solid Oak had created an e-mail alias, blocking.problems@solidoak.com, supposedly to act as an arbiter when people object to the blocking of sites, so I copied my correspondence to this alias. Here is the answer I received: "Your 'appeal' is noted. DO NOT SEND E- MAIL TO THIS DOMAIN AGAIN."

In the weeks that have elapsed since then, scores of other people from around the world have been kind enough to write to Solid Oak, protesting the blocking of Peacefire and The Ethical Spectacle. Milburn and Solid Oak's marketing exec, Marc Kanter, have spoken to the press, calling me variously a "publicity seeker" and the dupe of a "right-wing agenda," among other things. Milburn's favorite explanation is that I link from my pages to other blocked sites, such as Peacefire. This is particularly strange reasoning; if Cybersitter now blocks everyone who links to The Ethical Spectacle, Peacefire, NOW or any other banned site, sooner or later Solid Oak will block the entire Internet.

Cybersitter blocks the whole spectacle.org domain, including every one of the 26 monthly issues published so far. The most influential issue of the Spectacle was the June 1995 "An Auschwitz Alphabet". This compilation of Holocaust materials and essays about them has resulted in hundreds of favorable letters from teachers, schoolchildren and college students around the world.

I collected about 10 of these responses and sent them to Brian Milburn in a letter in which I also asked him:
"1. Why do you think your dislike of criticism is more important than the benefit these students gain from accessing my site?
"2. Why do you think you are more qualified than these teachers to determine what our children should see?"

Seth Finkelstein, a free speech activist based in Boston, has been extensively educating the world about blocking software (see www.mit.edu/activities/safe/labeling/summary.html). Finkelstein says: "It's a bait-and-switch maneuver. The censorware makers will use sex panics to get people to use their products, but then extend their secret blacklists to all sorts of other material, including criticism of them." He has frequently made the point that blocking software is not a less restrictive alternative to government censorship; it is the first step toward government intervention. The inevitable second step is that laws will be passed making use of blocking software mandatory.

Finkelstein is right. Bills pending in California, Minnesota and Florida would do just that. California Senate bill AB132, for example, would require all school districts to buy blocking software. If these schools respond by purchasing Cybersitter, then Solid Oak will become the official arbiter of what California schoolchildren can see on the Internet--and they won't be able to see The Ethical Spectacle, "An Auschwitz Alphabet," Peacefire or NOW.

Just think about that.


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