CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1997 // June 17th //
Jacking in from the "Envelope Please" port:
New York-- CyberWire Dispatch received the top award for "Best Online Feature" from the Computer Press Association during its 12th annual awards ceremony for its investigative story "Keys to the Kingdom" that exposed the hidden agendas hard coded into so-called blocking software programs.
Dispatch immediately announced it was doubling its subscription because, hell, let's face it, you strike while the iron's hot. (Which is a saying I never understood.
The award makes Dispatch a back-to-back winner. Last year CWD won the top honor in the "Best Investigative Story or Series" category for its articles exposing the twisted story of Carnegie Mellon University undergrad Marty Rimm's attempt to pass off a flawed study of online pornography as a definitive case history. Dispatch also exposed Rimm's calculated and deceptive manipulation of Time magazine which resulted in the infamous "Cyberporn" cover story fiasco.
The judges said CWD authors Brock N. Meeks and Declan McCullagh "produced an investigative piece on a serious and important subject-a rare feat in any media. 'Keys to the Kingdom' revealed that parental control software-which ostensibly filters out pornographic Internet sites-actually restricts access to all types of material both innocuous and important. Thus, software users unwittingly restrict their rights of free speech and access to information. This story, colorfully written and packed with details, raised this important issue to the online community and resulted in high profile follow-ups with mainstream media such as the Washington Post, New York Times and the Wall St. Journal."
In other words, the judges got it. Of course, "colorfully written" is a code word for "it was packed with profanity, twisted tales of drug and alcohol abuse and flirtation with a gender bending source." Kids, don't try this home...
The software blocking controversy continues to this day, with few changes being made. One company, CyberPatrol, is now changing the way its software handles the blocking of sites so that it doesn't sweep in non-offending content. Currently, CyberPatrol truncates a blocked site's URL without regard for any other site that may be caught in that blocking net. For example, if CyberPatrol wants to block a URL with 'cybersex" in the domain name, the company simply blocks on the word "cyber" meaning that a site called "cyber-highschool" would be caught in CyberPatrol's "CyberNot" list and therefore not accessible.
At least CyberPatrol is working to eliminate the problem. Another nefarious software program, CyberSitter, refuses to acknowledge any hidden agenda in its blocking patterns. CyberSitter continues to block a host of sites that deal with topics other than pornography, such as the National Organization for Women and Peacefire.Org. The latter site has become a leading critic of CyberSitter and that critical voice appears to be the only reason why it's blocked by CyberSitter. Brian Milburn, president of Solid Oak Software which developed CyberSitter, continues to boast of how his program is being heavily used by Christian groups such as Focus on the Family. At the same time, Milburn is fond of sending out disparaging Email to his critics. When Dispatch wrote about Milburn's failed attempt to threaten this publication with legal action based on the bogus claims of copyright violation, Milburn wrote that Dispatch is "nothing more than a trickle of piss in the river of life." I'm sure Focus on the Family would love to put that quote in their brochures hawking Milburn's software to its membership.
The real hero behind this award is "Red" our transvestite source that passed CWD what was essentially the smoking gun: the lists of block sites of several software programs. These lists of blocked sites are essentially trade secrets and are therefore encrypted. The lists are the ultimate "little black book" of every naughty site on the Net, hence the "keys to the kingdom" title of our piece. But Red was able to break the encryption and read the lists in plain text. What Red saw there shocked and dismayed him, er, her, er... whatever... and passed the lists on to CWD.
The other hero here is Declan McCullagh, currently the Washington Correspondent for Time magazine's "the Netly News." Declan did the majority of the reporting as I pointed him in this direction and that and let him run with it. Meanwhile, I was doing most of the heavy drinking, trying to grind out my copy on a daily basis for HotWired's Netizen where I was covering the most boring fucking presidential campaign since Ruthaford B. Hayes beat whomever back in whatever year. Declan ground away at the story, dogging it like a crazed rat terrier. If not for his efforts, the story might still be unwritten.
That the story might still be unknown had not CWD written it is a sad commentary on the state of "computer journalism." Where is all the hard nosed, down in the dirt investigative journalism when it comes to the computer and online industry? You have to look long and hard to find it.
The San Jose Mercury News took home this year's award for "Best Investigative Story" for a story about how thieves are stealing chips. "No longer content to hijack a truck or bribe employees to look the other way, high-tech thieves have escalated into kidnapping, coercion and brutality to get their hands on components literally worth more than their weight in cocaine or gold," the judges wrote of the Merc's story. The Merc also walked away with the "Best Overall Coverage in a General Interest Newspaper" so it's not a big leap to see them cop the investigative award, as well.
[Side Note: CWD's "Keys" article was originally entered in the investigative story category. Someone on the CPA committee moved it to the online feature category because the investigative category was for print only! Don't ask me why; CWD won in this category last year. Not to take away from the Merc's story, but boys, if CWD goes head-to-head with your chip story, CWD kicks your ass.]
So where are all the investigative stories? The New York Times was no where to be found last night, neither was the Wall St. Journal or the Washington Post or Business Week. The fact is, journalists covering this industry give it too much of a free ride. Yes, there are scathing product reviews... oooohhhh, now there is some top notch muckraking journalism.
This industry is making profits that border on obscene. And when there is that much money at stake there is dirt, big time dirt. But few are looking. A concerted effort needs to be undertaken to hold this industry's feet to the fire, hell, we need to burn this industry down and rejoice in what rises from the ash.
Thanks to all those on the CPA committee for this award and the judges. (I got riled up giving my speech last night and forgot to thank the CPA for the award.) And a special nod to Adaptec who ponied up the money for the whole event and to Dee Cravens, the company's vice president for communications, who had a few choice things to say about the shaky nature of "computer journalism" as well. Good on you, Dee, as CWD's Aussie readers like to say.
Thanks to Declan for his hard work on the story and "fuck you" to Josh Quittner, who is El Heffe for Pathfinder.com and the real brains behind anything intelligent Time Inc. does in print or online dealing with cyberspace, for stealing Declan away from me before I made the jump to MSNBC as their chief Washington Correspondent.
Thanks to Red for all his, er, her, er, whatever, efforts in bring this story to the public's eye. And thanks to my insightful and ballsy editors at MSNBC who continue to allow me to write CWD without any restrictions or constraints.
Lastly, when you get that bill in the mail doubling the subscription price for CWD, remember, it goes to a good cause, the furtherance of take no prisoners journalism in cyberspace. Pay the bill promptly, CWD is going for a "three-peat" in next year's awards.