By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Q: The computers at my local library won't let me access a ton of Web sitesI'm not talking porn, but tame stuff on health and politics. Any way I can covertly tweak the machines?
Sounds like your library has decked out its computers with Internet filters, also known as censorware. Filtering programs block access to sites mentioning ostensibly naughty words like sexualityand gayas a means of shielding kids from mind-warping erotic fare. Since computer code lacks common sense, however, lots of nonsalacious material gets added to the no-no lists. Beating the filters isn't always easy for neophytes, but there are some excellent online guides.
The proliferation of censorware has been sped along by the Children's Internet Protection Act, which denies millions in funding to schools and libraries that don't install filters. Though a federal appelate court just last week overturned the law as a violation of "protected speech," until the Supreme Court eventually decides the issue, cash-starved institutions can't afford to turn down Uncle Sam's lucre on principle.
Lawsuit-wary companies are another censorware hot spot, since an errant booty JPEG can spark years of litigation. Heck, even the computers at Mr. Roboto's laundromat use censorware, lest a randy washer try to look up a "Barely Legal" site while waiting for the socks to dry.
For a list of filter blunders, check out the Web site of the anti-censorship organization Peacefire (Peacefire.org). A recent test of Mattel's Cyber Patrol revealed a wide range of bizarre bans: Sites for Denmark's Catholic Students' Association, a civics club called All About Omaha, and TeenAIDS were all verboten. A product called I-Gear blocked pages from Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and a pen-pal site for Jewish teens. And the truly troubling Eyeguard blocks any page with "flesh tone" colorsnixing the site of Britain's stuffy, salmon-colored Financial Times.
Fortunately, censorware is also notoriously shoddy when it comes to security, and can often be disabled with a few clever keystrokes. Some filters can be turned off just by hitting CTRL+ALT+DEL, then ending the relevant program in the task menu. Others get confused by surf-by-proxy tools, like Anonymizer (Anonymizer.com), which funnel Web addresses through a second server.
The smarter filter makers are clued into these tricks, though, so you might have to up the ante. Peacefire.org distributes a point-and-click filter-killing program, Peacefire.exe, which works against several versions of PureSight, Cyber Patrol, and Net Nanny. The site also features some nice step-by-step instructions for deleting censorware, including a five-part strategy for crippling SurfWatch.
Computer amateurs who get freaked by anything hairier than right-clicking their mouse will want to check out www.cexx.org/censware.htm, a user-friendly page that archives dozens of methods for besting censorware. Techniques requiring extended forays into MS-DOS are clearly mapped out, as are some head-crushingly obvious attackswho would have guessed that older versions of Net Nanny can be foiled by entering the hard-to-guess password "~frontdoor"?
Since few librarians possess the technical chops or the zeal to secure their censorware, you shouldn't have too much difficulty finally getting the scoop on Britain's Conservative Party (blocked by I-Gear) or the White House Conference on Small Business (blocked by Cyber Patrol). But please, promise me you won't tell your hot-and-bothered 14-year-old nephew.
Fans of Swiss Army knives and other multi-use wonders will groove to Panasonic's new SV-AV10. It's a digital camera, camcorder, voice recorder, and MP3 player all rolled into one pocket-sized, $450 gadget. Geek site CNET.com gripes about the poor image quality, but Mr. Roboto's seen worsealbeit from devices a hundred and fifty clams cheaper. You might also think twice about toting it along on your next drunken lark, as the casing doesn't feel like it'll withstand much abuse. Still, the SV-AV10's James Bond vibe should elicit wows from passing gearheads. Here's to hoping the next model adds a shackle-cutting laser to the mix.
Input questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.