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Net filters foiled again

The 20-year-old founder of anti-censorship group Peacefire posts a program that bypasses Net blocking software Cyber Patrol 4.0.

Undermining Net filtering seems to be a full-time job for mathematics graduate student Bennett Haselton. Today he is at it again.

Haselton launched a program that easily generates a valid password for the prominent Net blocking software Cyber Patrol 4.0. Using Haselton's "CPCrack" program, a minor could sidestep the Cyber Patrol controls his or her parents had installed on a Windows operating system to limit access to sexual, profane, or violent content on the Net.

As with other programs he has created to help computer users elude filtering software or to expose the list of sites blocked by a particular program, 20-year-old Haselton says his latest venture is not a prank to show off his sophisticated computer science skills. The cracking program is a part of an ongoing protest against censoring minors' Net access, he said.

"We believe that you're never too young to start thinking for yourself and having opinions for yourself. The Internet is a part of that," Haselton told CNET News.com today.

Haselton has been involved in the Net free speech movement since he founded the teen anticensorship group Peacefire at age 17. Later he was a plaintiff in the American Library Association's successful case to block a New York law that prohibited giving minors access to "indecent" Net material.

Along with Cyber Patrol, Peacefire's site also helps people get past CYBERsitter, SurfWatch, and Net Nanny--the other leading Net site blocking technologies. The copy of CPCrack posted today is the second version Haselton has made public.

When contacted by CNET News.com, Cyber Patrol spokeswoman Susan Getgood said she was not aware another password generator had surfaced, and that the company would work quickly to stomp out CPCrack.

"We'll do that same thing we always do, we'll lock it down," said Getgood, vice president of marketing development for Cyber Patrol, which is owned by the Learning Company. The Learning Company is in the process of merging with toy giant Matel.

Cyber Patrol does not plan to explore taking legal action against Haselton, she added. "We work really hard to create filtering software that parents use to protect their children," she said. "We really focus on that mission. If part of what we have to do is to continually improve our security measures, then that is what we'll do."

Haselton's latest move comes in the wake of a federal judge's decision to block enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to give minors access to "harmful material" and imposes up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison for violations.

During last month's six-day preliminary injunction hearing to argue the merits of COPA, the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented 17 plaintiffs, argued that blocking software was more effective in limiting minors' entry to adult-oriented sites. The Justice Department countered that laws like COPA would better protect children because filtering technologies could be circumvented.

Ironically, Haselton's program supports the government's theory. Still, he noted that COPA was put on hold because it threatens the First Amendment, not because filtering products can be shabby.

"There is sort of stereotype going around that the programs are easy to disable--that is not true," he added. "I know the government says that, but the laws being debated are so blatantly unconstitutional that they would get struck down even if blocking software didn't exist."

Cyber Patrol's Getgood agreed, but said Haselton's work nevertheless helps less tech-savvy minors skirt Net content controls. "They are not easy to bypass--there is a big difference between an 8-year-old child at home and a computer science major like Bennett. What he is doing is irresponsible," she said.

Mandatory Net filtering has been the center of debate around the country. In a precedent-setting ruling in November, a federal judge in Virginia said it was unconstitutional for public libraries to filter access on all Net terminals. However, the subject is far from closed--two weeks ago a bill was introduced in the Senate to require schools and libraries receiving federal subsidies for Internet connections to install Web filtering software on their computers.

Advocates of Net filtering and laws like COPA say Haselton's program is proof that more stringent government action needs to be taken, and also serves as a lesson to parents.

"Home filtering for parents can be an excessive burden," said David Burt of Filtering Facts, which promotes Net screening at libraries. "If parents are going to do filtering programs, however, a much better way is through a filtered ISP because that would be harder to get around."