Declan McCullagh on Wed, 3 Jul 96 10:13 MDT

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nettime: CWD -- Jacking in from the "Keys to the Kingdom" Port

CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1996 //

Jacking in from the "Keys to the Kingdom" Port:

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 that 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'd just spent the better part of a muggy Washington night knocking
back boilermakers in an all-night Georgetown bistro waiting for a
couple of NSA spooks that never showed.

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

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 and USENET newsgroups including
(home to AP and Reuters articles), and, Red's list revealed. CyberSitter also
bans alt.politics.homosexual and the QRD at 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, 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

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,
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, 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:

NetNanny also has a fetish for computer scientists. For instance, it
blocks all mailing lists run out of -- 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,,, and, according to a recent "Cybernot"

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

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,,, alt.homosexual.lesbian, and

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

Dispatch particularly enjoyed CyberSitter's database, which reads like a
fucking how-to of conversations the programmers thought distasteful:

[,suck,lick][the,his,her,your,my][cock,dong,dick,penis,hard on...]

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...


While Brock N. Meeks ( did the heaving drinking for this
article, Declan B. McCullagh ( did the heavy reporting.

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