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Through hell, high water or Web filters

As Congress mulls action, some schools already limit MySpace access. But it hasn't kept teens off the site.

May 31, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Excuse me, Congress? You know that bill you're thinking about passing, the one that would prevent kids from accessing social networking websites like MySpace.com at schools and libraries? Kris Sosa, a junior at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Miss., has something to tell you:

"Anything that youth attaches themselves to, the public gets scared about," he says. "And with this, just like with anything else -- underage drinking, for example -- youth is going to find a way to get what they want. It's inevitable. Even if this law passes, even if it goes into effect, there's going to be a way around it. It's just a matter of time."

Sosa is sure that he'll beat such a prohibition because he and many of his teenage compatriots already have. Like a growing number of schools and libraries nationwide, West Ottawa blocks students from social networking websites. But instead of glumly relinquishing access, Sosa and "a majority of the other kids at my school," he says, use technological workarounds to access whatever they darn well feel like. When administrators block one route, kids find another.

Which suggests that the mess of politicians, teachers, parents and other adults engaged in a feisty debate over the bill recently proposed by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the Deleting Online Predators Act, are perhaps asking the wrong question. It's not whether lawmakers should bar kids from accessing social networking websites but whether they can.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
West Ottawa High School: An article Wednesday in Calendar about attempts to limit access to the MySpace website quoted a student from West Ottawa High School and said the school was in Holland, Miss. It is in Holland, Mich.

"There's no question that kids have become savvier," says Michele Shannon, senior director of product management for San Diego-based WebSense, a maker of Web filtering software. "If anyone's going to figure out a way through, it's them. We try and stay a step ahead."

In this arms race, Team Youth has an important adult ally. Bennett Haselton, a Seattle-based computer programmer who works on contract with the U.S. government to fight Internet censorship in places like China and Saudi Arabia, spends his free time doing the same thing on American turf. Through his website, Peacefire.org, Haselton provides free access to tools that Saudi Arabian citizens and American students alike use to tunnel through their respective barriers. (Authoritarian governments and school districts often employ the very same filtering software.)

"Historically, teenagers have been much closer to adults than children," Haselton says. "It's only in recent decades that the teenage years became classified as an extension of childhood rather than part of adulthood. Just because kids stay in school longer, it doesn't mean that the natural age of human maturity and responsibility has gone up."

The technology behind blocking software, and the software to circumvent it, have remained mostly the same since Haselton began this crusade about 10 years ago, when he was a freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Peacefire was then, as now, a "students rights organization." Its motto: "You'll understand when you're younger." The challenge has been less inventing new technology, Haselton says, than disguising the same technology over and over so that the enemy can't recognize it.

Filtering software generally resides on a school or library's central server computer, a gateway to the unfiltered Internet beyond. All the connected computers direct their Internet traffic through this server so that if a giggling adolescent in a computer lab types in Playboy.com, the server intercepts that request and sends back a blank page instead of a naked woman.

Problem is, the Internet is a vast landscape of billions of sites, expanding by the millisecond. It's obvious that a school would block Playboy, a known entity, but what of the unknown? Despite receiving daily or even hourly updates from filtering-software vendors, it's simply impossible for software programs to censor the Web in its entirety. So Haselton and teenagers everywhere set up and abandon porthole after porthole under cover of anonymity.

Let's say that instead of typing in Playboy.com, that same giggling adolescent typed in Birthdaycakebatter.com. Chances are that the server would grant his request because this new address isn't on the list of blocked sites. Unbeknown to the server, however, Birthdaycakebatter.com is one of a never-ending stream of "circumventor" websites created by Haselton and others, each one located at another random, innocuous-sounding Web address (for instance, Magneticpizza.com and Seahorseolympics.com).

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