When Charles Arthur tried to find out why a Web site was being blocked by the Cybersitter software, the door was slammed in his face
It seemed an innocent query. My e-mail's subject line was: "Journalist asks: why are you blocking particular site?". I wrote: "I've been informed that you (well, Cybersitter) are blocking a site called the "Ethical Spectacle" (http://www.spectacle.org)." My e-mail to Brian Milburn, president of Solid Oak Software, based in Redwood City, California, also had a couple of questions about whether the site had indeed been blocked, if so why. Standard fare, really.

Within hours an e-mail appeared - apparently from "The Terminator" at Solid Oak. With some trepidation, I opened it. Was Schwarzenegger on the way?

"Dear Sender," it read. "Unfortunately, we do not accept unsolicited e-mail that is intended to be harassing, is politically motivated, or in any way offensive to the employees at Solid Oak Software. Therefor [sic], we will appreciate your cooperation in not contacting this company again regarding these issues."

I was intrigued. Solid Oak's Cybersitter program is an example of new "blocking software", touted for parents as the best way to prevent children from seeing pornography and other undesirable material online. Install the program on your child's PC, and an internal "banned list" of sites (maintained by Solid Oak) tells the Cybersitter program what access to allow. If you try to access a site on the list, Cybersitter won't let you.

Now, that seems sensible enough, though as I have pointed out before, the agenda that such programs follow is kept purposely obscure. And often, it is simply inappropriate for British children (Network, 22 July 1996).

Furthermore, the (independent) companies don't publish a list of which sites they block. They argue that this would be like advertising the whereabouts of a honeypot to bees. They don't notify sites that are blocked, arguing that they would move elsewhere.

But in the case of the Ethical Spectacle site, Cybersitter seems, to me, to have taken a step too far. The trend began with Cybersitter's blocking of a site called Peacefire (http://www. peacefire.org) run by Bennett Haselton, a teenager who takes a keen interest in matters relating to what he perceives as censorship. As it happens, he thinks programs such as Cybersitter are a form of censorship, since the buyer doesn't really know what's being cut out from view. (For that reason, some who dislike such software call it "censorware".)

His site had contained suggestions about how to create "mirrors" (copies of sites) that could not be detected by Cybersitter's automatic Web-searching robot, which roams the Net and logs sites that contain words or images Cybersitter users should not see.

Apparently for this reason - none has ever been forthcoming from Cybersitter, says Bennett Haselton - Solid Oak blocked Peacefire. Then Jonathan Wallace, who runs the Ethical Spectacle site, got interested. He published a piece on his site about the blocking of Peacefire. Cybersitter responded by blocking Wallace's site, too.

Blocking a site that points to a site that you've blocked? One which contains nothing offensive in itself? A touch bizarre, surely. So, although the e-mail had told me not to, I rang Brian Milburn. Why the abrupt response to my earlier message, I asked?

"Oh, that's just an automated system," he said. "It's to prevent organised harassment. Anything with that site's name [Ethical Spectacle] in the body of the message got sent to an automatic reply system called the Terminator." He claimed to be receiving up to 60 e-mails daily asking why the site was blocked.

What if it was a customer who had heard about it and wanted to know why? "They would be out of luck."

With this caring attitude, you can see why Mr Milburn and Solid Oak have rapidly entered a sort of Internet demonology. A number of sites now boast graphics saying "Don't buy Cybersitter!" (Solid Oak has started to block those sites, too.)

But Milburn is frankly unworried. Why the blockage? "They maintain links to sites that could potentially tell our children how to disable the program," he said. So would he take Peacefire or Ethical Spectacle off the list if they notified him that they had removed, er, whatever he found offensive from their sites? "We don't want to babysit him," he said. "They're simply going to be blocked, as is any site that maintains links to them."

There's no review panel or process for getting a site taken off Cybersitter's list - unlike another "blocking" product called CyberPatrol. So what are Solid Oak's criteria for banning a site? "We use conservative moral standards," Mr Milburn said. "It's common sense." That was as far as he would go.

Mr Milburn claimed that Bennett Haseltton's motive was to get the media's attention. He succeeded, but Mr Milburn's attitude helped a lot. If the "Don't Buy Cybersitter" campaign spreads, and Solid Oak continues blocking sites, then one day, as one observer remarked, Cybersitter owners will turn on their machines to read: "Access to Internet blocked by Cybersitter. We will appreciate your cooperation in not contacting this company again regarding these issues"n