For four years, computer consultant Bennett Haselton has made a practice of aggravating Internet filtering firms that shield smut from children's computers.
Since age 17, Haselton has been publishing ways to circumvent filters and has exposed companies' secret lists of blocked Web sites to show that many are neither pornographic nor offensive.
His latest target, Symantec subsidiary iGear, is a filtering program widely used in New York public schools. Haselton gained access to iGear's system and claims he found that many of the sites it bars are not, in fact, pornographic. But when he posted a link on his Web site to iGear's list of blocked sites, the company's lawyers sent a letter to his Internet service provider, saying that the link was infringing the company's copyrights.
"I'm not intimidated because I know what I did was legal," Haselton said yesterday. "But I'm a little surprised at their reaction."
The event could be a new chapter in an ongoing debate about the legality of code breaking, or "reverse engineering." Civil libertarians maintain that cracking code to gain access to information constitutes fair use and does not amount to an unlawful act, but copyright holders believe otherwise.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act put some of these issues to rest when it passed in 1998. The act imposes safeguards for software, music and written works on the Net and outlaws technologies that can crack copyright-protection devices.
But the act does permit cracking devices to conduct encryption research for the purpose of interoperability and to test computer security systems.
Reverse engineering also has been the focus of some major lawsuits that, once settled, could have a significant effect on intellectual property protections.
In February, Sony Computer Entertainment America lost an intellectual property case against Connectix, a manufacturer of personal technology products. Sony charged that the privately held company was illegally using its copyrighted material to make a rival product to sell Sony PlayStation games on Apple Computer's Macintosh systems.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Connectix's actions were protected as fair use.
"The opinion made it clear that reverse engineering holds," said Claude Stern, an attorney with Palo Alto, Calif., firm Fenwick & West.
In another case, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in December sued 72 Web page operators, claiming that they circulated a program online that lets people crack the security on DVDs. The MPAA started its battle after a 16-year-old Norwegian student posted online code known as DeCSS that theoretically would allow a person with a DVD drive on his or her PC to break a disc's security to play movies on unauthorized players.
Although the suit, filed in Santa Clara County Court in California, has moved slowly, a similar case brought by the movie industry in New York federal court has garnered some results. A judge there ordered three defendants to temporarily remove the code-breaking materials from the Web pending the outcome of the case.
The latest court ruling, along with the various interpretations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, has Haselton a little worried.
"If the courts change the situation, then it will become much harder to criticize blocking software--or any kind of software--except for user interface and other things that users see without looking under the hood," he wrote in a chat discussion on Slashdot.org.
Finding fault with filters
Filtering has been part of a national debate over public access to the Internet in government-subsidized institutions such as libraries and schools. Proponents of filters say they are necessary to protect minors from "harmful" material online. But opponents say filters don't work, alleging they often prevent people from accessing legitimate information.
In the case of iGear, Haselton said he conducted a study of the firm's top 50 blocked sites ending with ".edu" under the pornography category and found that 38 were wrongly restricted.
He alleges that some rather ridiculous errors included one that barred Web pages detailing milk pasteurization in Portuguese. He posted his findings on his Web site, Peacefire.org.
iGear wouldn't comment on the findings, but Bruce Taylor, chief counsel to the National Law Center for Children and Families in Fairfax, Va., disputed Haselton's study.
"I don't trust that Peacefire is telling the truth," Taylor said. "It's all part of the cyberpunk revolution. They don't like the government telling them that they don't have free access to the Internet. It's like 'Lord of the Flies,' and they think they have the conch."
iGear has not taken further legal action against Haselton. In an email, Symantec general counsel Art Courtville said that the
list of barred sites "was obtained using a key number from a licensed copy of iGear. Using the key number in this manner violates Symantec's copyrights and trade secret rights and is a violation of the license to the iGear product."
Free speech vs. trade secrets
For Haselton, the brush with lawyers is nothing new.
In 1997, when he was still in college, Haselton decoded a list of all Web sites blocked by Solid Oak's Cybersitter software. He posted the code-breaker on his Peacefire Web site, irking executives at Cybersitter.
Solid Oak denied Haselton's charges and pursued an investigation of whether his decoding activity was legal but never sued.
The filtering firms say they keep their lists private to prevent competitors from knowing their trade secrets. But Haselton and other free speech advocates argue that the lists should be public so that parents, schools and libraries can know exactly which sites are being blocked.
Taylor equates this situation to one in which soft-drink giant Coca-Cola might be required to release its recipe for others to use.
"It's a question that needs to be sorted out," he said. "I think filters are a good way to go; it's the only way to protect your kids from viewing these materials."
Taylor said that most filtering programs have become more sophisticated over the years. Instead of searching only for words, the software can be customized to scan whole Web sites and filter them based on whether they contain objectionable content.
But free speech advocates, such as Jonathan Wallace, a software executive and nonpracticing attorney, say the programs that filter porn sites sometimes also block information about issues such as civil rights for homosexuals and women.
"They block a lot of valuable speech," he said, pointing to an incident in Ohio in which a journalism student couldn't do research on the school's computers because sites that listed information about AIDS, drug use and other hot topics were censored.