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Solid Oak Software/CyberSitter

Filtering Categories

Background on Company

Issues around the filtering philosophysof CyberSitter were aired in the media primarily in the years 1996 and 1997. This was the era of the demise of the Computer Decency Act and the frantic search for a non-governmental imposed alternative -- which led to the rise of the filtering software programs -- followed rather quickly by the rise of efforts in unveiling the actions of the filtering companies. Most of the history of this unveiling activity and the responses of the CEO of CyberSitter is recorded on the Peacefire site at http://www.peacefire.org/cybersitter.

As is apparent in the news reports set forth below, CyberSitter was, in the late 1990's, quite open about it's "moral conservativism" and it's close relationship with Focus on the Family, a conservative religious organization which was apparently selling the CyberSitter product. CyberSitter does not appear to have much of a foothold in the public school market, possibly because of the reports about its filtering philosophy. CyberSitter also does not appear to have targeted the ISP market. No evidence of the use of its product by conservative religious ISPs was found.

The company does present itself as a filtering solution for schools to assist them in achieving compliance with CIPA. http://www.cybersitter.com/cybedu.htm

Examples of Blocking Categories/Criteria that Present Concerns

"Adult/sexually oriented
Blocks all adult oriented web sites"

A question to ask would be whether this category blocks access to sex education material.

"Sites promoting gay and lesbian activities
Covers sites promoting the gay and lesbian life style."

Cybersitter has not blocked sexual orientation sites with swinging and adultery. However, another issue becomes apparent. How does one distinguish between sexual orientation sites that are appropriate for young people from others that are related to homosexuality but are clearly not appropriate for young people? If all such sites are blocked in one cdategory this would prevent student access to appropriate homosexual sites addressins safe sex of discrimination issues.

"Sites advocating illegal/radical activities
Covers topics such as bomb making, guns, drugs, etc. Basically anything that would be considered illegal for someone under the age of 13."

The red flag word in this description is "radical." Would this include political protest sites which, while radical, receive strong constitutional protection? One might also question what activities are illegal for someone under the age of 13 but not illegal for those over the age of 13.

"Sites promoting cults and/or occult activities
Covers topics such as cult activities, witchcraft, Satanism, etc."

This category combines information about legitimate religious subjects with material that presents concerns.

Religious Connections


CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1996 //
Jacking in from the "Keys to the Kingdom" Port:
Declan McCullach and Brock Meeks

Washington, DC -- This is a tale of broken codes, betrayal of a social contract, morality run amuck, and a kind of twisted John Le Carre meets the Crying Game encounter.

For a range of companies producing so-called "blocking software" designed to keep kids from accessing undesirable material in cyberspace, the road to such a moral high ground turns out to be a slippery slope. These programs, spawned in the wake of the hysteria over how much porn Junior might find on the Net, have chosen the role of online guardians. The resulting array of applications, including names like SurfWatch, CyberPatrol, NetNanny and CyberSitter, acts as a kind of digital moral compass for parents, educators, paranoid Congressmen, and puritanical PTAs.

... [omitted material related blocking of the National Organization for Women web site NOW)]

Dispatch reached Kim Gandy, NOW's executive vice president, at home as she was preparing dinner for her 3-year old daughter. Gandy charged the companies with 'suppressing information' about feminism. She said: 'As a mother myself, I'd like to limit my kids from looking at pornography but I wouldn't want my teenage daughter [prevented] from reading and participating in online discussions of important current issues relating to womens rights.'

An indignant NOW? Let 'em rant, says CyberSitter's Brian Milburn. 'If NOW doesn't like it, tough... We have not and will not bow to any pressure from any organization that disagrees with our philosophy.'

Unlike the others, CyberSitter doesn't hide the fact that they're trying to enforce a moral code. 'We don't simply block pornography. That's not the intention of the product,' said Milburn. 'The majority of our customers are strong family-oriented people with traditional family values. Our product is sold by Focus on the Family because we allow the parents to select fairly strict guidelines.' (Focus on the Family, of course, is a conservative group that strongly supports the CDA.)
CyberSitter's Milburn added: 'I wouldn't even care to debate the issues if gay and lesbian issues are suitable for teenagers. If they [parents] want it they can buy SurfWatch... We filter anything that has to do with sex. Sexual orientation [is about sex] by virtue of the fact that it has sex in the name.'

Los Angeles Times, 1/6/97
Site-Filtering Controversy Likely to Heat Up
By DAVID PESCOVITZ, Special to The Times

"Brian Milburn, president of a Santa Barbara company called Solid
Oak Software, is not a man to shrink from a fight.
'We're not politically conservative, we're morally conservative,'
Milburn says."

Gay and Lesbian Alliance blasts filtering software
By Lisa M. Bowman
December 3, 1997 6:13 PM PST ZDNN

"Cybersitter, which came under fire earlier this year for blocking sites including NOW, said its conservative reputation actually helps its bottom line.

"That has driven our sales to some extent -- the fact that we have admittedly blocked gay and lesbian sites, that we have blocked NOW," Solid Oak spokesman Mark Kanter said. "Our tests show that most parents don't want their children seeing that material."

Ironically, conservative groups like many of the same products as GLAAD. This month's issue of Citizen, a magazine published by the conservative group Focus on the Family, gives Cyber Patrol and Surfwatch the highest ratings among filtering software. But the group is also a reseller of Cybersitter."

CyberSitter: locks out more than just porn
By Joe Salkowski
StarNet Dispatches
(undated, but likely 1997)

I can't help looking over my shoulder as I type the URL: www.playboy.com

I'm at work, hunched in front of my computer and fighting off an urge to explain to anyone in the area that I'm not doing anything wrong. Really.

You see, I'm testing a copy of CYBERsitter, one of those software programs that's supposed to keep kids from stumbling across sex, drugs or violence while surfing the Net. So I'm pleased - mostly - that my attempt to visit Playboy's web site is blocked. I try Penthouse: Again, I'm blocked. So far, so goody-goody.

Still, I'm feeling not-so-politically correct for even trying to visit those sites. I decide to surf over to a group dedicated to protecting the rights of women, the National Organization for Women.

Blocked by CYBERsitter.

Hmm, that's odd - while you might expect a virtual bra burning, there's nary a nipple exposed at NOW's web site. Perhaps I should debate the merits of Net censorship with the free thinkers at The WELL, a San Francisco-based Internet provider that hosts discussion forums accessible through its web site.

Blocked by CYBERsitter.

As it turns out, CYBERsitter blocks plenty of web sites that have nothing to do with sex, drugs or violence. Some of the sites, including NOW's, belong to groups that offer resources for gays and lesbians. Others belong to people who merely share a server with sites that include pornography.

Does that mean his site screens out anything a conservative might find undesirable? 'People ask if (CYBERsitter) has a politically conservative bias, and I say no - it's morally conservative,' Milburn said. 'That's what kind of product it is.'

He acknowledges that CYBERsitter, which is marketed by the conservative group Focus on the Family, blocks any site that includes information on 'gay and lesbian issues.'

'Homosexuality is about sexual issues, and we block everything relating to issues,' Milburn said. 'We've taken a lot of heat from homosexual groups, but our customers are by and large supportive of that (stance).'

Indeed, Milburn says CYBERsitter is the software filter of choice for conservative family groups, private religious-based schools and users in 'Middle Eastern countries where a lot of the things we block are strictly forbidden.' ..."

CyberSitter's Current Position

CyberSitter has denied any political agendas and any affiliations.

"Q. I heard that CYBERsitter has a hidden political agenda. If it does, what is it?

A. There have been a few articles that criticize CYBERsitter for some of the sites it filters. Naturally, when someone disagrees with your policies, they immediately assume that you have some political agenda. CYBERsitter blocks sites that meet a pre-defined criteria. Every site we block meets this criteria without exception. CYBERsitter has no agenda of any kind, unless you consider protection of children a hidden agenda. (Note above, CyberSitter denied that they had a political agenda, but did state they had a "moral" agenda.)

Q. Is Solid Oak Software or CYBERsitter affiliated with any group or organization?

A. Solid Oak Software is a privately held California corporation. All major stockholders are also full time employees. CYBERsitter is a wholly owned product of Solid Oak Software. Aside from professional memberships in organizations such as the Software Publishers Association, Solid Oak Software maintains no affiliation with any group or organization of any kind, and no member of any group or organization sits on any board or advisory group of Solid Oak Software. Decisions on blocking policies are made by employees of Solid Oak Software, Inc. (Note above, this statement is directly contrary to statements made by the CEO and reported in more than one news report. The relationship between Solid Oak and Focus on the Family appears to have been terminated.)