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Lifting the Curtain on Web Filter Strategies

FOR parents worried about online pornography, buying Internet filtering software requires a leap of faith. The companies that make the software say that they are blocking what they consider to be obscene or pornographic Web sites. But they refuse to disclose lists of exactly which sites they block, saying that the lists might end up in the wrong hands.

The American Civil Liberties Union, on the other hand, has argued that people have a right to know exactly what the software blocks especially if government-run libraries and schools are buying these products. Anti-filtering activists have shown that some seemingly harmless Web sites, like that of the American Association of University Women, have been blocked by such software.

This spring, the A.C.L.U. defended three Web publishers who linked to a small program that circumvented the locks on CyberPatrol, an Internet filter, to view the list of sites that it blocked. CyberPatrol had sued over the creation of that program, and the publishers took down the offending Web pages, waiting to see whether their actions were legal.

Now, emboldened by recent legal rulings, the publishers have restored the Web pages, again publishing instructions on how to read lists of sites that are filtered and linking to the circumvention program.

"The public is served by having these sites public," said Chris Hansen, the A.C.L.U. lawyer who has taken on their case. His clients include Waldo L. Jaquith, whose site is Waldo.net (cp.waldo.net), Bennett Haselton, whose site is called Peacefire.org (www.peacefire.org), and Lindsay Haisley, whose site is The Breaking of Cyber Patrol 4 (cp.fmp.com).

The best news for these publishers, Mr. Hansen said, came from the Library of Congress on Oct. 27. The library, which oversees the United States Copyright Office, had been instructed by Congress to determine exemptions to a recent copyright law prohibiting the circumvention of security mechanisms on software. One of those exemptions, the library ruled, pertains to people who are trying to read lists of blocked Web sites.

"Persons who wish to criticize and comment on them cannot ascertain which sites are contained in the lists unless they circumvent," the ruling said.

Officials for SurfControl, the company that now sells CyberPatrol products, shrugged off the ruling, saying that they were more concerned with the security of their software than the publication of lists. "This is not about the lists," said Susan Getgood, a SurfControl spokeswoman. "This is about protecting our users."

Besides, she said, the argument is moot. More than six months ago, she said, the company released a more secure version of its software one that cannot be hacked by the current circumvention program.

The company has also pointed out that although it will not publish its list of blocked sites, it does allow people to search its list for specific Web addresses. The search engine is available at www.cyberpatrol.com/cybernot .

From the beginning, CyberPatrol's main targets were the programmers who wrote the program to bypass the software's security. In late March, the company won a ruling from a federal judge who ordered the programmers to stop distributing their circumvention program. The lawsuit soon ended in a settlement, but it was unclear whether people who published the programmers' work were also subject to the judge's order. A ruling in October from the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, Mr. Hansen said, appeared to show that the publishers were in the clear.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hansen said, gaining access to lists of the blocked sites is more relevant than ever. Congress, for example, is considering a spending bill that includes what is being called the Children's Internet Protection Act. If passed, the act would withhold federal funds from public schools that do not use Internet filtering software.