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No-Tell Mattel

This is a story about how to get a child’s attention, or a journalist‘s, or that of anyone else with a good 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 users to target content by category, allowing more access to, say, firearms-related sites and less access to, say, sites with sexual material.

Beyond that, however, anyone using blocking software delivers themselves unto the software company, which hass vays off making you stop Veb-surfing. Most blocking software shields from prying eyes the list of sites it actually blocks. After all, if that list were visible, it would make a great Internet travel itinerary for those you’re trying to protect, typically children.

If you do get a look at the blocked-site list, however, you‘ll find that much censorware far oversteps its stated objective, i.e., protecting children from objectionable content. For instance, CyberPatrol, a product offered by the charming people at Mattel (the El Segundo--based home of Barbie and, as Seal Press will tell you, of 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 on 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 of blocked sites that Mattel didn’t want you to see. The hackers were operating in the tradition of censorware infiltration inaugurated by Seattleite Bennett Haselton against Solid Oak, the lovely 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 censorware and otherwise supporting the right of young people not to be kept stupid for their own good.

The hack of CyberPatrol revealed that Mattel may have been concerned with shielding not only racy zones but, perhaps, grounds for defective-product lawsuits. The people behind the list of blocked sites were stunningly incompetent (though not more so than many of their competitors); up to 50 percent of the sites were 404 (not found). CyberPatrol 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 -- the aforementioned pack of lawyers whipped out what many who saw it took to be a subpoena via e-mail (a first, by the way) demanding that all who had a copy of cphack not only remove it from their sites but also supply Mattel with a log of who had downloaded it from them. Included in this subpoena spam, among other folk, was a journalist, Wired’s Declan McCullagh, who had merely sent out an e-mail with a list of sites mirroring the blocked-site information. Mattel now claims that the communiques were not subpoenas but ”notices“; one suspects that they realized you can‘t serve a subpoena electronically. The original language, however, strongly suggested that the ”notice“ was meant to carry the force of an honest-to-God subpoena.

Mattel went on to ”acquire“ cphack and threaten all mirror sites with contempt of court. The acquisition was accomplished by threatening the two hackers with utter legal mayhem if they didn’t sell the rights for $1 or so; the hackers, being by nature mathematicians and not legal guinea pigs, rolled over. Since Mattel bought cphack itself, mirror sites could also be sued for infringing Mattel‘s copyright in the software that was used to back the company’s program!

At last report, the ACLU and Peacefire continued to press the case. And the plot thickens: The two hackers published cphack and its documenting essay (also sold to Mattel) as GPL -- general public license, a fairly new legal structure that automatically transfers rights to anyone who chooses to use the program andor publish the essay. This is totally new legal territory, and there‘s no way of knowing if it will hold up in 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 Mattel‘s copyright and, now, its ownership of a program (cphack) that the company neither created nor purchased. But, Mattel’s lawsuit violates the hackers‘ freedom of speech. Its subpoena (at least as served on Declan McCullagh) violates freedom of the press. Its software violates your right to make informed decisions on behalf of your child, once you become a CyberPatrol customer.

If you really want to manage your kids’ access to the Internet, I have a sure-fire technology for you: a chair. Pull one up to the desk and sit with your child. Look at sites together. Talk. Keep talking. The cure for offensive speech is not a gag, legal or technological; it‘s more and better speech. The cure for cybertrash isn’t barring access; it‘s opening your own lines of communication.

In fact, I have a great communication channel for you to open right now. Go to www.openpgp.netcensorshipindex2.html and pick one of the many listed mirror sites to see how the Mattel hack was done and what the explorers found -- information Mattel really, really doesn’t want you to read. Mattel is suing the socks off a lot of people so you can‘t read it, after all -- and if there’s anything we learned as kids, it‘s that the stuff that freaks out grown-ups, be it naked pictures or nasty lawyers, is probably worth paying attention to.


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