Score one for young free speech advocates in their high-tech battle against
Hours after Netscape Communications debuted the 4.06 version of its browser with a new content filtering mechanism--provided for parents, teachers, and librarians who want to
restrict access to "potentially offensive" Web sites--a teenage developer
posted what he describes as a simple means of bypassing the filtering
feature's password controls.
Netscape's 4.06 version of its Communicator Internet software suite, posted
yesterday, includes a content-filtering feature that the company had
previously announced would be part of its upcoming 4.5 version of
Communicator. Dubbed NetWatch, the feature relies on two Internet ratings
standards using the World Wide Web
Consortium's Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS lets Web sites rate their
own content and lets Web browsers read those ratings.
Those who download the 4.06 browser can activate and change the ratings
Netscape acknowledged the efficacy of the bypass approach, but said users
would be unwise to download it because they would be granting an obscure
developer high-risk security clearance on their computer.
"Downloading a certificate is a really big thing," said Communicator
product manager Edith Gong. "It means you're going to trust anything he's
going to send down to you. That's what I would consider a pretty high-risk
Gong pointed out that many libraries and schools prevent software downloads
of any kind, confining the bypass' threat to NetWatch to home users.
certain operations unless a user specifically grants it permission and
accepting a digital certificate authenticating the sender's identity and
approving what it proposes to do. Under this model, users are considered
likely to accept certificates from known entities such as Netscape, and not
accept certificates from unknown entities like Brian Ristuccia, who created
Ristuccia, a computer science student at the University of Massachussetts at Lowell and
an employee of Bay Networks, said his
programming efforts are motivated by free-speech concerns.
"Freedom of speech is something thousands have fought and died for,"
Ristuccia wrote in an email message. "It would be shameful to see something as
simple as a censorware password suspend this inalienable human right."
Gong said Netscape's intention in offering NetWatch was to protect younger
children from inappropriate Web content. She acknowledged that determined
Web users would be able to find their way around content controls, whether
that meant downloading a new browser or finding more technologically