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Activist Takes Aim at Internet Censorship

Web: Some criticize his efforts to disable filtering software. But he cites minors' rights.


BELLEVUE, Wash. — Internet activist Bennett Haselton has made a name for himself by helping minors disable filtering programs designed to block Web sites that their parents deem offensive or pornographic.

His site offers free downloads and details methods for circumventing filtering software that critics say also inevitably blocks out a range of useful, even beneficial, Internet content.

Yet while Haselton's crusade, launched six years ago while he was a college student, has made him a hero among some Web-savvy minors, he's something of a super-villain to filtering advocates.

"He's being totally irresponsible," said Marc Kanter, marketing director for Santa Barbara-based Solid Oak Software, which makes the Cybersitter program.

"When he started Peacefire, he was a kid himself," Kanter said. "Basically, he was enticing minors into his beliefs and activities, which was to undermine parents' rights. As an adult now, he should know better than that."

Haselton, a 23-year-old who simultaneously earned a bachelor's and master's degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says his objection to Net censorship is not born so much of passion as logic.

The criteria used by filter program designers are too arbitrary, he says.

Besides, children should be able to view whatever Web page they like, Haselton asserts. "I think intellectual development is one of the fundamental human rights, and it's also a right that people under 18 have."

Haselton was heartened by a federal appeals court decision last month that struck down the Children's Internet Protection Act, ruling that public libraries cannot be forced to install filtering software to receive federal funding.

But many who share Haselton's opposition to filtering consider his position extreme.

"I'm not of the opinion that parents don't have any say where children should go" on the Internet, said Chris Hunter, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who testified on behalf of librarians at the trial.

Hunter worries that Haselton's line of thinking "that parents shouldn't have a right to monitor their children's access lends fuel to the other side saying that we're somehow uncaring about the issue."

After graduating from Vanderbilt at age 20, Haselton went west to work for Microsoft Corp. He left in January 2000, frustrated that he was writing code rather than tracking bugs for the software giant.

In addition to running Peacefire, Haselton now does battle with purveyors of Internet spam and works to ferret out security flaws on the Internet.

He made about $15,000 in bounty from Netscape last year for discovering flaws in the company's browser software. And last month he gained notoriety for finding flaws with, a popular Internet privacy service that lets Web surfers visit sites anonymously.

"That was pretty sophisticated," Anonymizer President Lance Cottrell said. "The fact that he was able to find it is testimony to what a clever fellow he is."

Haselton also has won 10 of 14 small-claims cases and thousands of dollars in judgments against senders of e-mail spam--though he has yet to collect a cent. Washington is one of about two dozen states with anti-spam laws.

Haselton says that though he intends to keep sniffing out bugs for bounty, he hopes to focus more of his energy on Peacefire's crusade.

"This is something that practically nobody else is working on, and only a couple of people in the world actually know as much about the blocking software issue," he said.

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