No-tell Mattel

This is a story about how to get a child's attention, or a journalist's, or that of anyone whose job it is to operate a bullshit detector.

Blocking software (or censorware, as it is known in some circles) is software designed to prevent access to sites offering certain kinds of content. Most blocking software allows you to choose targets by category, allowing more access to, say, firearm-related sites and less access to, say, sites with sexual content.

Beyond that, however, you deliver your child into the hands of the software company, which hass vays off making you zurf. Most blocking software shields from prying eyes the list of sites it actually blocks. After all, if that list were visible to the users, it would presumably make a great itinerary for visiting exactly the sites you don't want them visiting.

If you do get a look at the blocked-site list, however, you'll find that many blocking packages far overstep their bounds. For instance, CyberPatrol, a product offered by the charming people at Mattel (home of Barbie and, as Seal Press will tell you, a pack of nasty lawyers), blocks access not only to naughty pictures and hate sites but also to the quilting club at Carnegie-Mellon University, journalism-related Usenet groups, and information related to such hot-button topics as chess and Chinese food.

We know this not because Mattel told us so, but because two intrepid hackers unraveled the secrets of CyberPatrol with a program they called cphack. Cphack was designed to reveal the list that Mattel didn't want you to see. The hackers were following a tradition of censorware infiltration started a couple of years ago by local hero Bennett Haselton against Solid Oak, charming folk whose CYBERsitter software targeted such obvious enemies of the people as the National Organization for Women. Haselton manages the peacefire.org site, dedicated to unraveling just such software and otherwise supporting the right of young people not to be kept stupid for their own good.

Examination of CyberPatrol proves that Mattel may have been concerned not only about providing a travel itinerary but also about defective-product lawsuits; the list of blocked sites was stunningly incompetent (though not more so than those of many of its competitors). As many as 50 percent of the sites listed were 404 (not found). It blocked one guy's resume. It blocked a sheet-music publisher, for god's sake.

And when Mattel got pissed off at the hackers, it blocked their site too. And then Mattel filed a lawsuit. And then—oh, you'll love this—they whipped out a subpoena via e-mail (a first, by the way) demanding that everyone who had a copy of cphack not only remove it from their site but also supply Mattel with a log of who downloaded it. Included in this subpoena spam, among other folk, was a journalist, Wired's Declan McCullagh, who merely sent out an e-mail with a list of sites mirroring the information. As of Monday, Mattel had then "acquired" cphack (though how it came about is unclear as of this writing) and was threatening all mirror sites with contempt of court.

In the words of Daffy Duck, you do realize this means war.

Free speech, baby. Mattel's lawyers want you to believe that access to the list of censored sites would violate their copyright and, now, their ownership of a program (cphack) they neither created nor purchased. What their lawsuit violates is freedom of speech. What their subpoena (at least as served on Declan McCullagh) violates is freedom of the press. What their software violates is your right to make informed decisions on behalf of your child once you become a Mattel customer.

If you want to manage your family's access to the Internet, I have a surefire piece of technology for you: a chair. Pull on up to the desk and sit with your child. Look at sites together. Talk. Keep talking. The cure for bad speech is not a gag, legal or technological; it's more and better speech. The cure for the headaches of this modern world isn't shutting down access; it's opening your own lines of communication.

In fact, I have a great one for you to open right now. Go to www.openpgp.net/censorship/index2.html and pick one of the many listed mirror sites to see how it was done and what the explorers found—an essay Mattel really, really doesn't want you to read. Mattel is suing the socks off a lot of people so you don't, after all—and if there's anything we learned as kids, it's that something the grownups are freaking out about, be it naked pictures or nasty lawyers, is something worth paying attention to.

 
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