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Lost in Cyberspace

Hypocrisy rules on both sides of filtering issue

This article was originally published on March 14, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The latest skirmish between those who favor using Internet "filters" and those who oppose them has left both sides looking rather silly.

The publishers of Cyber Patrol, one of the more popular software programs that will block access to Web sites with sexually explicit or violent content, have filed a lawsuit against two activists for writing and distributing a program to bypass Cyber Patrol.

In its lawsuit, Microsystems Software claims that Eddy L.O. Jansson and Matthew Skala violated the firm's rights by their "cphack" program that will reveal both the password for Cyber Patrol on any given computer, as well as the master list of all blocked Web sites.

Skala's argument that he opposes filtering software on "philosophical grounds" is the kind of narcissistic posturing that makes a mockery of so many free-speech activists. Really, what kind of libertarian (or even Libertarian, for that matter) would oppose filtering software? Someone truly committed to free speech and letting the market decide what will be read on the 'Net would see a filter for what it is – simply another tool for parents and others charged with supervising little ones.

To argue that children should have the same "right" to view violent or sexually explicit content as adults is to betray the very concept of childhood – that when young, we lack the judgment and experience to make important decisions without risking serious harm to ourselves. (Lest Skala and other self-proclaimed "progressives" forget, the entire concept of childhood is a recent development; for most of history, children had no special protection or status, and were often hanged alongside convicted adults.)

Skala's other argument, that parents have a "right" to know what sites are blocked by Cyber Patrol, rings equally hollow. If parents don't like the fact that Cyber Patrol's workings are hidden, they don't have to buy it. Period.

Besides parents, the other major users of filters are public libraries and schools. It's pretty darn hard to buy into the argument that taxpayers carry a constitutional obligation to provide free pornography via public Internet terminals. Were that the case, public libraries and schools would be legally obligated to subscribe to Playboy and Hustler and make them freely available. Clearly that hasn't happened; the new technology of the Internet hardly changes the basic principal that some materials are unsuitable in some environments.

The alternative is to risk turning every public library in the nation into a mini Times Square peep show. How that might serve the public interest has yet to be explained. As long as folks remain free to publish whatever they see fit without fear of government punishment, then there is no censorship – despite the dire predictions of doom from the professional handwringers over the use of filters.

As for the publishers of Cyber Patrol, their attempts to use the courts to stop distribution of cphack is as ultimately futile as it is wrongheaded. Trying to block distruction of the program will work no better than the recording industry's efforts to stop distrution of a DVD-copying program currently tied up in the courts. In the face of a recent judicial order applied against a handful of Web sites, the DeCSS DVD-copying program rapidly spread to hundreds, even thousands more Web sites. Enforcement in the face of that kind of civil disobedience quickly becomes a ridiculous charade.

Cyber Patrol will have no more luck stopping the online distribution of cphack. Further, their argument that cphack is illegal because its authors used backwards engineering flies against both legal precedent and how the computer industry works. Reverse engineering has been repeatedly upheld by the courts, and is responsible for AMD's ability to design chips to compete with Intel's family of Pentium CPUs and Star Division's ability to have its StarOffice save in Microsoft Office file formats. There is, quit simply, nothing illegal or even wrong about reverse engineering.

Again, Jansson and Skala's efforts to let children bypass their parents' efforts to protect them are juvenile and immature, designed more for self-aggrandizement than any social benefit, and display as much ignorance as hypocrisy.

But what those efforts are not is illegal, and the courts should toss Microsystem Software's lawsuit out. It's own argument – that cphack shouldn't be allowed because it unfairly impinges on the company's right to do what it pleases without interference – mirror those used by anarchists and other activists against Cyber Patrol.

Besides, even advocates of filtering software have always couched their support with the common-sense observation that filters are no substitute for adult supervision of and interaction with children. Any parent whose kids have enough unsupervised time to bypass their family's filtering software have a ready solution at hand, if only they'll use it:

Spend more time with their kids.