Sticks and Stones Can Hurt, but Bad Words
Makers of Web Filters Fight Over
Carefully Compiled, Closely Held Lists of Blocked
By LISA GUERNSEY
ISPUTES over the content of words and Web sites are
nothing new. These days, they usually involve
people fighting to filter what children see on the
Web, or other people fighting for their right to
speak, print or send via computer any words they
like. Now an Internet filtering company has added a
new twist to the battle over what is banned: it is
accusing another company of stealing its list of
banned words and Web sites.
The filter companies involved are Cybersitter
and Clickchoice; ICQ, an instant messaging service
on the Web that once recommended the Clickchoice
filter to its users, has also been swept into the
fray. The dispute has illustrated how difficult it
is for a filtering company to keep its lists of
banned words secret and added fuel to the debate
over whether such secrecy is warranted.
Officials for Cybersitter accuse Clickchoice of
using Cybersitter's proprietary list of filtered
words as the basis for its own filtering software,
which it formerly offered online. Clickchoice
denies that. But Cybersitter is still considering a
lawsuit, said Marc Kanter, vice president
for marketing at Cybersitter's manufacturer, Solid
Oak Software, based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The conflict is rooted in the difficulty of
setting up a filter that blocks what is intended
but does not block innocuous sites or references
that just happen to include, say, the word breast.
When a site is requested through a Web browser or
search engine, most filtering software checks the
requested Web address against a list of taboo
sites. Some software, like Cybersitter's, also
reads words that have been typed into search
engines and checks them against a list of banned
words. If a match is found, the search engine won't
display links to the offending sites.
In the case of chat-room filters, sometimes
typed words -- as well as links to Web sites -- are
Devising a list of sites and words to ban
involves many tricky decisions. Some filters are
based on specially devised formulas that catch
combinations of words and phrases; others include
Web sites that may not include words like
naked, yet are still
deemed to be pornographic. Most companies consider
the lists they have compiled to be precious trade
secrets, hidden behind encryption and released to
no one. Even customers who download the software
onto their computers have no access to the lists
that control what sites and words are blocked; they
can find out what is included only by searching for
specific terms or pages to find out if they are
"If we published the list, we would be shooting
ourselves in the foot and giving ammunition to
competitors," said Theresa Marcroft, a
marketing director for SurfWatch,
a leading Internet filter.
The dispute over Cybersitter's list began last
month when an ICQ user discovered that ICQ was
directing customers who wanted a filter to a site
called Clickchoice.com. There, users could download
two Clickchoice filters that were designed to work
with ICQ. One of the filters blocked the appearance
of some words that many people do not consider
inappropriate for children, like words about gay
rights. Some ICQ users were appalled that ICQ was
promoting the Clickchoice software as its filters
of choice, and a few online news organizations
reported the complaints.
The flap dissipated within a few days, as soon
as ICQ stopped linking its customers to the
Clickchoice site. An ICQ spokeswoman attributed the
link to Clickchoice to an "internal problem" and
said ICQ was not in the business of endorsing one
filter company over another.
A new problem emerged when Cybersitter received
a call from a reporter for CNET's News.com who had
reported that one of the Clickchoice filters worked
suspiciously like Cybersitter's. The reporter sent
Cybersitter a copy of Clickchoice's list of banned
words, which she had received from Peacefire, a
youth group opposed to Internet filters. The group
had downloaded the Clickchoice software and viewed
its list, which unlike those in most filters was
That list of banned words and sites matched the
list that Cybersitter had used in creating its
software two years ago, said Kanter, of
He said it had become unquestionably clear that
Clickchoice had used the Cybersitter list to create
its own software.
"This was blatant," Kanter said. "It's just
amazing to us."
In an interview, Joseph Provissiero Jr.,
vice president of marketing and sales at the
Clickchoice Company, based in Atlanta, apologized
for offending anyone with the choice of words for
the company's filter but contended that Clickchoice
had "not done anything wrong."
Nevertheless, Clickchoice no longer offers the
ICQ filter. In fact, Provissiero said, Clickchoice
is not in the business of creating filtering
software at all. What Clickchoice is developing is
still secret, he added.
Clickchoice's Web site is blank except for this
statement: "The purpose for which this site was
originally created is no longer valid. Site is now
Hackers may have also played a role in the
dispute. Kanter, of Cybersitter, said that
Clickchoice had received a copy of its banned words
after Cybersitter's list was decoded two years ago
In 1997, Bennett Haselton, a Vanderbilt
University graduate student who started Peacefire,
wrote a program that could decode Cybersitter's
filter. Once a person ran the decoder, a text-based
list of Cybersitter's banned words and taboo sites
would appear. Soon Cybersitter's list was being
posted on Web sites around the world.
Kanter said it was obvious that Clickchoice had
got one of those decrypted lists and used it as the
basis of its ICQ software. For example, he said, he
found the words "Don't buy Cybersitter" in
Clickchoice's list -- words that Cybersitter added
to its secret list years ago, when an
anti-filtering campaign with the slogan "Don't buy
Cybersitter" was raging online.
Provissiero denies that Clickchoice's list was
"There were a variety of sources that were used
when the list was compiled," he said.
Other filtering companies, like Surf Watch, have
also fallen prey to hackers. Both Surf Watch and
Cybersitter now use stronger encryption to lock up
their lists. But it seems that doing so only
increases the decoders' appetite for the keys.
Newsgroups are peppered with conversations among
children who want to figure out how to unblock
their parents' blocking software and with advice
being passed among people who want to expose
exactly which sites a filtering company filters.
Those opposed to the use of Internet filters in
public libraries and schools are disturbed by the
secrecy surrounding blocking software. In a recent
court case involving the library board in Loudoun
County, Va., lawyers for the residents opposed to
filters asked for the right to see what words and
Web sites would be banned. X-Stop, the software
company hired by the library, refused to turn over
its list, calling it a trade secret.
That refusal became part of the plaintiffs' case
against the use of filters. The library board had
argued that installing filtering software was no
different from librarians' making decisions about
what books to stock on the shelves. But Bob
Corn-Revere, a lawyer arguing against the
library board, pointed out that when librarians
made decisions about books, they knew exactly what
they were deciding to include or exclude.
"But if they were using Internet filters,"
Corn-Revere said, "how would they know?"
The American Civil Liberties Union would much
prefer that the lists be made public, said Ann
Beeson, an A.C.L.U. lawyer who specializes in
Internet censorship. She said she knew of only one
filter -- called Net Nanny -- that gave its
customers the option of viewing its list of banned
sites and words. The rest of the filtering
companies keep their lists closely guarded.
Such secrecy, Ms. Beeson said, "prevents the
consumer from knowing what in the world they are
buying when they buy these products." Besides, she
added, once lists are exposed, it becomes clear
that claims about the importance of protecting
trade secrets are "a lot of smoke and mirrors."
Some of them consist of little more than a batch of
profanities and descriptions of sex, she said.
Officials for filtering companies vigorously
disagree. They say building these lists is arduous
Cyber Patrol, for example, employs 10 people to
spend eight hours a day at the company's
headquarters in Framingham, Mass., reviewing Web
sites culled by online robots called Web crawlers
that were built by Cyber Patrol to search for
potentially offensive material. Those researchers
then categorize the Web sites into groups like
"violence/profanity" and "gross depictions." As
with other Internet filters, customers cannot see
the sites that are grouped under each category, but
they can decide which categories they want to be
"An intellectual process has been applied here,"
said Susan J. Getgood, Cyber Patrol's vice
president of marketing. "The fact of that work
makes the list our intellectual property."
Interestingly enough, Cyber Patrol has also
created a list of sites that it says are not only
safe for children but are also designed to be
educational and fun. But the company isn't taking
any pains to protect that list as its intellectual
property: the list is not protected by encryption
or even sold. It's free on the Web, for anyone to
See also: Anti-Defamation
League's Crusade against Internet Freedom