IT Infrastructure & Management

Anti-Censorship Tool Would Evade Porn Filters

By Andrew Trotter — May 21, 2003 4 min read
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Less than a year after a federal law began requiring school districts to protect their Internet connections from pornography and other objectionable materials, a new software tool offers a loophole—courtesy of Uncle Sam.

The software, called Circumventor, can be installed on any Windows-type computer with unfiltered access to the Internet, such as a home computer. That machine then can be a springboard for Web requests from computers, such as those in schools, that have filters. Such a setup makes it possible to retrieve unauthorized Web pages and rebound them to the requestor, past the filter’s outstretched arms.

A student on a school computer, for example, would start the process merely by typing the Web address of the unfiltered computer into a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer.

Circumventor wasn’t meant to help youngsters download porn in the school library. It was developed by the federal government to allow people overseas who live under repressive governments to get news and information online.

“Various hostile governments like Cuba and China are blocking Web sites—we’re looking at technologies that can help,” said Ken Berman, the program manager for Internet anti-censorship at the International Broadcasting Bureau. The bureau, which oversees the radio and Web services of the Voice of America, in Washington, paid software programmer Bennett Haselton to develop the tool.

Mr. Haselton is better known as the founder of Peacefire, a nonprofit, Seattle-based group opposed to censorship on the Web, even for schoolchildren. And he has been touting to the news media and on Peacefire’s Web site that, in addition to defeating “the great firewall of China,” the anti-censorship software can evade the Internet filters in nearly all schools and many homes.

“We know that millions of teenagers have uncensored Internet access anyway and are clearly handling it responsibly,” Mr. Haselton said in an interview. “Why isn’t it right for all of them, not just for those lucky enough to have it?”

Clearing the Filter

Circumventor takes a task usually requiring an expert—creating an “anonymous proxy server"—and automates it so it can be done in a few minutes by someone with modest computer skills, Mr. Haselton said, and the software is available for free on the Web.

However, Mr. Berman of the International Broadcasting Bureau noted that the software is still a test version. He added: “We don’t want to put taxpayer dollars into helping people browse porn.”

Even so, one filtering-company executive acknowledged that the method is effective.

“It does work to get around filters,” said David Burt, the public relations manager for the Seattle-based N2H2 Inc.

Still, he said the company’s Bess filtering system, which is widely used in schools, would detect a Circumventor-equipped computer if “a substantial number of people” started using it.

“But you can set it up in your home for 10 of your friends, and they can probably get around the filtering,” Mr. Burt conceded.

Nancy E. Willard, the director of the Responsible Netizen Institute—a private group based in Eugene, Ore., that promotes safe and responsible use of the Internet—called Circumventor “very significant” because it exposes filtering as a “quick fix” that is unreliable and fails to teach children to be responsible Internet users.

She cited a 2002 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that tested the six filtering products that are most widely used in schools. The study concluded that filters block access to valuable health information on the Web and let objectionable materials slip through—errors that increase at the more restrictive settings.

“Given that environment, there’s going to be really strong interest, especially among technically sophisticated students, to set up these [anti-filtering] systems for themselves and their friends,” Ms. Willard said.

In many cases, she said, “this is not at all bad—they’re doing it to get to the [appropriate] sites that they’re being blocked from.”

Schools would be better off responding to the Web’s inappropriate content by emphasizing education and supervision, she argued.

Why Schools Care

No reports have surfaced that Circumventor has been used in schools, but some school technology officials are talking about the software.

In the 7,000-student Mankato, Minn., school district, Doug Johnson, the director of media and technology, said the potential use of the software highlights the issue of “overblocking” of valuable information.

“I’m always worried that schools are going to be increasingly irrelevant to kids, who’ll say, ‘Why should I bother to do my research at school?’” he said.

The Mankato district filters at a minimum level to comply with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, which requires that schools that receive federal technology funds equip their computers with filters. The law’s identical mandate for public libraries has been put on hold by a federal court, pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

Mr. Johnson said Internet filters do spare students and teachers the nuisance of accidentally running into porn during Internet research, but he believes filters “provide a false sense of security.”

What’s more, every Mankato school has a computer in its media center in a supervised location that is left unfiltered for teachers and students to use, he said.

Mr. Haselton, meanwhile, said the software companies that make filters can come up with ways to defeat Circumventor, but the process would take “a few months” and require that their customers install software upgrades.

Plus, he predicted, more filter-evading tools will be devised in the not-too-distant future. In fact, the Peacefire Web site solicits ideas from visitors on better evasion techniques.

“We will continue to do stuff like this, helping to defeat Internet censorship in China—and Stateside,” Mr. Haselton promised.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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