Brian Ristuccia, a computer science student at the University of Massachussetts at Lowell and an employee of Nortel Networks, in August posted instructions for disabling the NetWatch filtering feature in Netscape's Communicator 4.06. He now has done something similar with Microsoft's IE, both in its 4.0 version and in the beta version of 5.0.
The filtering feature, dubbed Content Advisor, relies on Internet ratings standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium's Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS lets Web sites rate their own content and Web browsers read those ratings.
Ristuccia said he is cracking the security systems built into popular browsers because of free-speech concerns.
However, Content Advisor, which is listed on the browser under the "Edit" menu within "Options," is off by default and has to be activated by a user, according to a Microsoft spokesperson, who acknowledged the bypass.
"In order to provide parents who have forgotten their Content Advisor password a way to continue using the feature, Microsoft created a way to recover the information, and has provided that information to certain individuals. Now an individual would like to publicize to children that they can exploit this same method to get around their parents' password, which is both regrettable (since PICS enables parents to provide a safe, useful, and enjoyable Web experience for their children) and at best a temporary workaround," Microsoft's spokesperson wrote in an email message to CNET News.com.
"The software can be a dangerous tool for Internet censorship," Ristuccia said today. "Although it may have some legitimate uses, I think the risks outweigh the benefits."
But Microsoft's spokesperson noted that the Content Advisor feature is "supposed to be useful for parents. It's meant to be helpful to them."
Content Advisor is activated when a user clicks on it from the "Security" tab under "Options." It asks the user to set up a password and then rate the categories of Language, Nudity, Violence, and Sex based on the level of explicitness that will be allowed. Presumably, all the adults in a given household would know the password, so they could view Internet content freely. Children, who do not know the password, are blocked from viewing sites based on how violent or sexual they are, for example.
Ristuccia said the feature "takes the responsibility out of [parents' and librarians'] hands and puts it into a piece of software--and that's not a good idea."
Net filtering and free speech have been contentious issues for years. Most recently, a federal court upheld a July 1996 law that prohibits any Virginia state employee from using state-owned computer equipment to access or store sexually explicit content, unless a person gets written permission from a supervisor to obtain the prohibited material. The ruling affects college professors, social workers, court clerks, and others.
Last month, a California judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by an angry parent who wanted her local library to filter Internet access for all patrons after her 12-year-old son accessed pornography online at the library.
Filtering technology itself has been proven less than foolproof on a number of occasions.
The Microsoft spokesperson said that if Ristuccia's bypass is employed, parents will know the next time they log on because the password will have been changed.
But Ristuccia argued that on his site "are two items entitled 'Toggle PICS Off' and 'Toggle PICS On' that would allow a user to enable/disable PICS without actually changing the password. It is possible to disable the Content Advisor censorware, visit restricted sites, and then turn it back on without the person who enabled Content Advisor finding out.
"Also, while Microsoft may claim that the filtering software is designed to help parents, it is actually harmful to them because it provides for a false sense of security," he added. "Content Advisor blocks only a small percentage of sites that parents may find objectionable."
The Microsoft spokesperson said that if the bypass causes concern among users, Microsoft "would consider creating a new workaround. The problem is that it would probably be more complicated, which means it would be more difficult for parents."
For Ristuccia's part, he said he will continue to "do my best to see that none of these products are viewed as 100-percent effective."