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Cyber Patrol decoding brawl gets ugly and international

March 21, 2000
Web posted at: 4:50 p.m. EST (2150 GMT)

In this story:

Targeting mirror sites, downloaders

Court order charges 'irreparable harm'

Ultimate frisbee is blacklisted?

Reverse engineering, international law


FRAMINGHAM, Massachusetts (CNN) -- A legal dispute between a U.S. toymaker that produces a popular Internet pornography filter and two programmers that decoded the software could heat up into a messy international brawl.

A subsidiary of Mattel Inc. won a court order Friday requiring Eddy Jansson of Sweden and Matthew Skala of Canada to stop distributing a method to bypass its Cyber Patrol filtering software. Now the company is going after mirror sites that posted the "cphack" decoding program, and anyone who downloaded it.

Cyber Patrol's attorneys argue that cphack violates U.S. copyright laws and negatively affects business. Cphack defenders, however, contend that the filtering software extends too far and blocks out many non-pornographic sites, including those of Cyber Patrol critics.

A federal judge in Massachusetts on Friday ordered Jansson and Skala to stop distributing the cphack program immediately. Beside the defendants, the ruling forbids mirror sites from distributing the cphack bypass code or related utilities in the United States, said Irwin Schwartz, a Boston attorney representing Microsystems, in a statement.

Both Skala and Jansson have backed down. In a recent check of their personal sites, cphack was gone. Skala, a computer science graduate student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, declined to talk to the media, citing the advice of his attorney.

Jansson, thought to be living in Sweden, did not reply to an email. "I doubt that he's willing to talk at this time either," Skala said of his associate.

But Mattel's crackdown may be for naught. Copies of cphack and an essay about the decoding effort quickly mushroomed on the Internet, posted and distributed by sympathetic computer activists.

The Mattel subsidiary that makes Cyber Patrol, Microsystems Software Inc., argues that the court order means mirror sites with cphack must remove the utility.

Targeting mirror sites, downloaders

Microsystems' lawyers are also now looking for anyone who downloaded cphack, according to Declan McCullagh, a journalist and computer expert who received an electronic subpoena from a lawyer representing Cyber Patrol.

"Mattel attorneys are bulk-mailing anyone who even linked to the cphack code and telling them the order applies to them too. They're also sending out subpoenas, frantically trying to find out who downloaded copies," he said in an email on Sunday.

McCullagh said he never mirrored the cphack utility, but did post the addresses of mirror sites to Politechbot, his Web site about politics and technology that includes a moderated mailing list.

"Naturally I have no intention of revealing the identities of politech readers to Mattel or anyone else. Nor is a subpoena sent via email usually viewed as proper service, at least where I come from," he wrote.

Sydney Rubin, a Cyber Patrol spokesperson, downplayed Mccullagh's charge. "The court gave us the ability to [locate those who downloaded the program] but I don't think we will. We will do only what is absolutely necessary to take this [utility] down," she said.

But Schwartz, in an email to McCullagh, writes: "I have included a subpoena to you that requires you to disclose the log of persons who downloaded either '' and/or "cphack.exe'."

Court order charges 'irreparable harm'

A week and a half ago, Jansson and Skala published cphack and an essay about how they reverse-engineered Cyber Patrol's encryption. They distributed source code and downloadable utilities to allow people to bypass the filters.

The temporary restraining order request, filed last Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, contends that the company suffered "irreparable harm" by Skala and Jansson's actions.

The complaint was against the duo as well as the two Internet Service Providers hosting their Web sites, Islandnet in Canada and Scandinavia Online AB in Sweden.

Cyber Patrol is designed to block Web sites that advocate violence, hate or post X-rated adult content. It sells for about $30 and is widely used in many U.S. elementary schools and libraries.

Ultimate frisbee is blacklisted?

Besides disclosing passwords that allow access to blocked sites, Jansson and Skala's instructions reveal Cyber Patrol's whole list of more than 100,000 Internet sites considered unsuitable for children.

Electronic and student activists contend that filtering software commonly blocks non-objectionable sites.

Jansson and Skala's program, for example, reveals that Cyber Patrol for unknown reasons denies access to student organizations at Carnegie Mellon University, including ultimate frisbee, volleyball, and quilting club sites, according to McCullagh.

It also filters all journalism-related Usenet newsgroups, and information related to Philip K. Dick's science fiction, feminism, Jungian psychology, food, Chinese culture, and chess and bridge, he said.

"Much has been made about a so-called Blacklist, sounds like a McCarthy list," Rubin said, adding that such anti-filter activists miss the point.

"It looks like a lot of things are blocked that are not. The sub-pages are blocked. The hackers have a political point to make, so they say the whole site is blocked," she said.

That Skala and Jansson posted the list "was not part of the complaint filed by the company," she said. "We don't care about the posting of the list. First, it was done before. Second it was done much better."

But electronic activists contend Cyber Patrol's list of banned sites is important and can reveal censorship. The recently updated Cyber Patrol, for example, restricts Jansson's home page, which no longer appears to have the cphack program.

Reverse engineering, international law

Cyber Patrol's main concern is that the cphack duo used source code from the program to reverse engineer it, which violates U.S. copyright law, Rubin said. The software's license agreement says users "may not reverse engineer, decompile, or disassemble the software."

Skala is not talking now, but earlier wondered how much force of law the legal filings have in Sweden or in Canada. His work may be protected under a "fair use" clause of copyright law, he told the Associated Press last week.

Robin Gross, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, won't bet on Cyber Patrol's legal chances. "As far as I know, it (reverse engineering) is perfectly legal," she said.

In any case, if Skala and Jansson's actions were legal in their home countries, they can't be held liable for breaking U.S. civil law unless they show up in the United States. "There's this leap in logic that people overseas are somehow going to be amenable to be held liable," she said.

Rubin is nonplussed. Sweden has stricter copyright protection laws, she said. And that country considers violations a criminal matter, not a civil one like the United States.

"Ironically," she adds, "these two hackers copyrighted their material on their site, which is at least an inconsistency."

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