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Service hurdles Net blockers

A free service gives anyone access to the text of virtually any site in the world.

Internet entrepreneur Glen Roberts is now providing a free service that gives anyone access to the text of virtually any site in the world.

Not even five months after industry witnesses argued strongly during Communications Decency Act court hearings that filtering software like SafeSurf is the answer to the problem of how to regulate Net content, Roberts has already come up with a way to get around site-blocking tools used by what he calls "censor-happy" countries and corporations.

His work will come as unwelcome news to companies like CyberPatrol and SurfWatch, which have developed filtering software that blocks sites and areas of the Net. While the primary market for this software is parents who deem certain sites inappropriate for their children, corporations also use it to keep employees from wasting company time with idle surfing, and some countries are also using Net access services to block what they consider politically subversive sites.

But Roberts is offering to help anyone get access to material on those blocked sites--just the text, not pictures or multimedia. His work is so new that he doesn't even have a name for his week-old service, which is still in the testing phase.

"I was following the stories coming out of China and Singapore and came up with this service to give people the right to access valuable information," said Roberts, who is host to the Net Connection radio show, a short-wave broadcast based in Oil City, Pennsylvania.

He also was motivated to develop this software when he heard that libraries were interested in filtering software. "That struck a raw nerve with me because libraries have traditionally been a place where information flows freely, and it needs to stay that way," he said.

Here's how it works: Users send an email to an automated server with a Net address for a specific page in the message line. They then get a return mail that includes all the HTML code published on that page. The code can then either be saved as a file and viewed with a browser, or the text can simply be read in email. All the work is handled automatically by Roberts's ISP in Chicago, which retrieves the Web page and automatically sends it out.

The process can be time-consuming because a user must know the exact URL and send a new message for each page. Today Roberts posted instructions to access a password protected site. But the service underscores the often-made point that Netizens will figure out a way around any restrictions on Net access.

Some opponents of the CDA and other forms of Net regulation say that Roberts system is a mixed blessing. "Technology continues to create new ways to fight any type of censorship and this is a perfect example. It's actually kind of amazing," said Ann Beeson, legal counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. "On the other hand, it may have some downsides, one being the technologies that have been legitimately created to help people control what their children see."

Citizens in some countries could still be held liable if the government finds out they have access to blocked sites, even through email, Beeson added. "In places like China and Singapore, they are not just blocking access to certain sites, they are making it a crime to gain access to those sites, and they can monitor your email, which in many cases they do so. People could still be at risk."

That may be true, but Roberts says he receives about 300 requests a day, the majority coming from domains in Singapore or simply ".com." The most requested sites include Playboy online, CNN, and various other news outlets.

"It's a difficult way to surf the Web," Roberts said, "but it's better than nothing."