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Anti-censorship advocate locks horns with anti-pornography filterers

By The Associated Press

06.22.02

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BELLEVUE, Wash. — Internet activist Bennett Haselton has made a name for himself by helping minors disable filtering programs designed to block Web sites that their parents deem offensive or pornographic.

His Peacefire.org site offers free downloads and details methods for circumventing filtering software that critics say also inevitably blocks out a range of useful, even beneficial, Internet content.

Yet while Haselton's crusade, launched six years ago while he was a college student, has made him a hero among some Web-savvy minors, he's something of a supervillain to filtering advocates.

"He's being totally irresponsible," said Marc Kanter, marketing director for Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Solid Oak Software, which makes the CYBERsitter program.

"When he started Peacefire, he was a kid himself," Kanter said. "Basically he was enticing minors into his beliefs and activities, which was to undermine parents' rights. As an adult now, he should know better than that."

Haselton, a 23-year-old who simultaneously earned a bachelor's and master's degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., says his objection to Net censorship is not born so much of passion as logic.

The criteria used by filter program designers is too arbitrary, he says.

Besides, children should be able to view whatever Web page they like, Haselton asserts: "I think intellectual development is one of the fundamental human rights and it's also a right that people under 18 have."

Haselton was heartened by a federal appeals court decision last month that struck down the Children's Internet Protection Act, ruling that public libraries cannot be forced to install filtering software in order to receive federal funding.

But many who share Haselton's opposition to filtering consider his position extreme.

"I'm not of the opinion that parents don't have any say where children should go" on the Internet, said Chris Hunter, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who testified on behalf of librarians at the trial.

Haselton's line of thinking "that parents shouldn't have a right to monitor their children's access," Hunter worries, "lends fuel to the other side saying that we're somehow uncaring about the issue."

Haselton, who works from a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Seattle's eastern suburbs, was raised as a U.S. citizen in Copenhagen, Denmark, where his mother taught music to diplomats' children and others.

After graduating from Vanderbilt at age 20, he went west to work for Microsoft. But he left in January 2000, frustrated that he was writing code rather than tracking bugs for the software giant.

In addition to running Peacefire, Haselton now does battle with purveyors of Internet spam and works to ferret out security flaws on the Internet.

He made about $15,000 in bounty from Netscape last year for discovering flaws in the company's browser software. And last month he gained notoriety for finding flaws with Anonymizer.com, a popular Internet privacy service that lets Web surfers visit sites anonymously.

"That was pretty sophisticated," Anonymizer President Lance Cottrell said. "The fact that he was able to find it is testimony to what a clever fellow he is."

Haselton also has won 10 of 14 small-claims cases and thousands of dollars in judgments against senders of e-mail spam — though he has yet to collect a cent. Washington is one of about two dozen states with anti-spam laws.

On a recent weekday, virtually every square foot of floor space in Haselton's apartment was covered by stacks of programming books, floppy disks, empty boxes, dirty clothes and an upended office chair. Four computers dominated a corner table, where Haselton probes for vulnerabilities in filtering programs.

Haselton says that while he intends to keep sniffing out bugs for bounty, he hopes to focus more of his energy on Peacefire's crusade.

"This is something that practically nobody else is working on, and only a couple of people in the world actually know as much about the blocking software issue," he said.

Related

Despite flaws, schools install Internet filters to receive federal funds
Analysis One school official says money outweighed arguments that good adult supervision — not filtering — is the best solution for dealing with unsavory online content.  09.16.02

Federal law requiring Net filtering at libraries thrown out
Three judges say Children's Internet Protection Act goes too far, blocking access to sites that contain protected speech.  05.31.02

Peacefire: Unblocking information
Last week, the pioneering Web site Peacefire.org, which has been struggling for three years to protect childrens' rights to free speech and unfiltered information — and access to the Internet — posted explicit instructions for disabling eight of the country's biggest blocking-software programs.  10.23.98

'Tools' fail as strategies to keep kids away from Net sex at libraries
Ombudsman Paul McMasters testifies before National Research Council that effort to combat 'harmful' material does more harm than good.  07.18.00

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