A federal judge has sided with an internet filtering company in its lawsuit against two computer experts who distributed a way for kids to deduce their systems’ passwords and access those forbidden web sites.
U.S. District Judge Edward Harrington said parents and schools “have the … right to screen and thus prevent noxious and insidious ideas from corrupting their children’s fertile and formative minds.”
Microsystems Software Inc. of Framingham, Mass., which sells the widely used Cyber Patrol software, filed the unusual federal lawsuit March 15, asking the judge to order Eddy L.O. Jansson and Matthew Skala to stop distributing their “cphack” program immediately.
Skala, a Canadian graduate student in computer science, and Jansson, believed to be living in Sweden, published on the internet and in eMail the details about how to circumvent the filtering technology used by Cyber Patrol.
The pair offered a small “cphack” utility free for downloading that, when run on a parent’s or school district’s computer, discloses the password, allowing access to questionable web sitesand revealing the product’s entire list of more than 100,000 internet sites deemed unsuitable for children.
Cyber Patrol, which sells for about $30 for a single license, is widely used in many of the nation’s schools and libraries. In a survey of public school educators taken last May by market research firm Quality Education Data, Cyber Patrol was the second-most popular filtering program behind N2H2’s Bess.
“I oppose the use of internet filtering software on philosophical grounds,” Skala said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “The issue here was to see what Cyber Patrol actually blocks. Parents have a right to know what they’re getting, and without our work, they wouldn’t know.”
In its legal filings, Microsystems said it suffered “irreparable harm” from the publication of the bypassing software, which, it said, sought to destroy the market for its product by rendering it ineffective.
“The practical effect is that … children may bypass their parents’ efforts to screen out inappropriate materials on the internet,” the lawsuit said.
Skala, a self-described cryptography buff who attends the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said he spent about six weeks analyzing Cyber Patrol with Jansson’s help via eMail from Sweden.
In an unusual legal strategy, Microsystems alleged that Skala and Jansson violated U.S. copyright law when they reverse-engineered Cyber Patrol to analyze it. The software’s license agreement says users “may not reverse engineer, decompile, or disassemble the software.”
Microsystems also asked the judge to order the Swedish internet company where the bypass utility is published to turn over records identifying everyone who visited the web site or downloaded the program.
Harrington indicated he would agree to a permanent injunction against Skala and Jansson, which would block the distribution of the software by “all persons in active concert or participation with Skala and Jansson.”
But the judge held off on officially issuing the order because of questions about how broad it should beand whether it should also apply to anyone who put up “mirror” web sites.
Microsystems attorneys argued that the order should extend to any web sites that mirrored, or made copies of, the site that offers the “cphack” software. But the American Civil Liberties Union has stepped in to defend those who put up mirror sites, saying it endorses the second function of the programthe disclosure of the list of sites blocked by Cyber Patrolwhich, it says, deserves First Amendment protection.
Though Microsystems and the two hackers have settled, the actual court order was still pending at press time.
But the company’s lawyer, Irwin B. Schwartz, said damage to its product is “at least at a minimum” now, because relatively few people were believed to have downloaded the bypass software.
Cyber Patrol web site
Quality Education Data