JUL 19, 2001
Cracking the Code of Online Censorship
By JENNIFER 8. LEE
VERY year the Electronic Frontier Foundation hands out its Pioneer
Awards to people who have played crucial roles in the history of
technology. Recipients have included visionaries like Ivan
Sutherland, creator of some of the first computer graphics programs;
Douglas C. Engelbart, an inventor of the mouse; and Linus Torvalds,
inventor of the popular Linux operating system.
This year one of the three winners was Seth Finkelstein, an activist
who decrypts filtering programs, the software used by private
companies, libraries and schools to block out undesirable sites. As a
founder of the Censorware Project, an anti-filtering advocacy group,
Mr. Finkelstein has influenced public debate and legal decisions,
including a First Amendment case on filtering policy at a public
library in Virginia.
But most people have probably never heard of him, and until recently
that is the way Mr. Finkelstein, a reclusive 36-year-old computer
programmer, wanted it. Over the last six years he has spent hundreds
of hours decrypting the blacklists of popular Web filtering programs
like Cyber Patrol and X-Gear.
Most filters work by sending out programs that comb the Web for
banned words and then produce a list of Web sites containing those
words. Those sites are compiled into the closely guarded blacklists
that Mr. Finkelstein tries to uncover.
But don't call him a hacker. He gets prickly when he hears that word.
Instead he describes himself as a civil-libertarian software engineer.
Mr. Finkelstein contends that filtering is not only inherently flawed
but that in many cases it even acts as a deliberate censor. Many of
the Web sites on the blacklists - feminist sites, gay and lesbian
information sites, health sites and religious sites - are more
political than pornographic in nature. "This is inevitable," Mr.
Finkelstein said. "Once you give censors free rein, they go after
sex. They go after sex education. They go after feminism. They go
after gay rights."
The makers of filtering software say that criticism of their
products' accuracy is old news and they are addressing the problems.
"Technology evolves," said Susan Getgood, vice president for home and
education markets at SurfControl, a maker of Web and e- mail
filtering products. "It is a long way from the Model T to the BMW Z3
and a long way from the early days of filtering to the products on
the market today."
But Mr. Finkelstein argues that even if filters were free of
political bias, they would block some sites in error because they
cannot understand context. Most of the software no longer mistakenly
blocks sites involving breast cancer or chicken breast recipes, but
much of the blocking remains problematic nonetheless.
Mr. Finkelstein said he was now analyzing a list that blocked the
National Institutes of Health's Spanish-language site on diabetes.
The Spanish word hora, which means hour and is used often on the
page, also happens to be a Swedish word for prostitute.
"Computers are extremely stupid," he said. "Talk to any computer
scientists, not the marketing people. They'll tell you artificial
intelligence cannot determine context."
Mr. Finkelstein grew up in the Bronx, where his interest in
cryptography was fostered by Sherlock Holmes tales and newspaper
cryptograms. He studied mathematics and physics at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology with the goal of becoming a theoretical
physicist. When he was rejected by all the top graduate physics
programs, he said, he turned to computer programming as a job that
paid the bills. But he finds that his technical skills have more
meaning in urgent social debates.
Mr. Finkelstein said he began cracking the filtering blacklists in
1995 because he was concerned about how the software was being
promoted as an alternative to government censorship. "There was a big
social campaign among civil libertarians to talk up and tout
censorware as both a legal and social argument against government
censorship," he said. "While I did not oppose the legal argument, I
thought strongly that the social campaign was a huge mistake.`
To crack a filter, Mr. Finkelstein engages in a dance of decryption
that is part mathematics, part intuition and part brute force.
In 1998, his blend of technical skills and political convictions
helped the American Civil Liberties Union win a federal lawsuit
challenging the library Internet filtering policy in Loudoun County,
Va., on First Amendment grounds. Among the sites that the
organization said the library blocked was an informative site on safe
sex and the American Association of University Women's Maryland site.
A federal judge ruled against the library.
The A.C.L.U. and the American Library Association have also filed
suits challenging the Children's Internet Protection Act, passed by
Congress last year. The law requires that libraries receiving federal
financing and discounts for Internet service under certain federal
statutes must install filtering software.
Mr. Finkelstein's work exposes him to the threat of legal action, too.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act generally forbids the
circumvention of digital encryptions, although one of the exemptions
granted by the Librarian of Congress is for the decryption of
blacklists, largely because of Mr. Finkelstein's lobbying. But even
if decrypting the blacklists may be legal, releasing them to the
public may not be, since they are a form of intellectual property.
He said his concerns about the potential for legal trouble were
validated when two computer programmers who posted a program that
could circumvent Cyber Patrol were sued by Mattel, which was then the
parent company of the software's maker. In a settlement last year the
programmers agreed to stop posting it on the Web.
So Mr. Finkelstein had until recently worked relatively anonymously
from his cluttered apartment in Cambridge, Mass., passing his
information to journalists, lawyers and other activists to publicize.
Much of his work involves analyzing and documenting incongruities in
filtering software. In a report on SmartFilter that he wrote a couple
of years ago, for example, Mr. Finkelstein pointed out that it
blocked WrestlePages ("The best source for wrestling news");
MotoWorld.com, a motorcycle sport magazine produced by ESPN; and
Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, a support site. Company
officials at Secure Computing (news/quote), which makes SmartFilter,
declined to be interviewed about the software but released a
statement. "It is not technology such as SmartFilter that makes the
rules; it is organizations themselves," it said.
Mr. Finkelstein is particularly annoyed that language translation
sites are blocked simply because they can circumvent filters.
Visitors to a language translation site can enter the Web address of
a banned site and then see a translation at a different address.
"It shows that censorware is about control, not filtering," he said.
So Mr. Finkelstein intends to continue decrypting, as he scoffs at
claims that computer technology is close to acquiring the contextual
intelligence needed to identify inappropriate sites.
"It will be a phenomenal advance," he said of contextual ability.
"They will get the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. They will not be
selling it in a tawdry program for a couple of hundred dollars."
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