Bennett Haselton Attacks Censorship So We Can Say Fuck
Haselton is the founder of Peacefire, an anti-censorship and youth-rights organization that battles censorship and the technology known as Internet filtering. Increasingly standard in the workplace and schools, the filters use a combination of automation and human review to block certain pornographic, obscene, and often political websites from being seen by people surfing the Internet ["Access Denied," Pat Kearney, May 25, 2000]. To fight back, Peacefire creates and gives away software that allows people to get around the filters. Proponents of filtering, like Senator John McCain--who is sponsoring a bill that requires public schools and libraries who receive federal funding to have Internet filters--claim there are just too many sites with bad words and naked women. Haselton contends that filters such as CyberPatrol are flawed because they block out too many legitimate sites. (By design, the filters search for key words like "breast," but often end up blocking sites like the American Breast Cancer Association.) To Haselton, though, his battle against Internet filters is much more than a fight against faulty technology. He's hoping people will challenge their own assumptions of what is considered profane and pornographic.
It's hard to imagine that Haselton, who went to D.C. in August to testify before the federal Children Online Protection Act commission, is merely 21 years old. A shy and awkward young man with a deep voice, big brown glasses, and pale skin, Haselton has accomplished a lot for his age. In fact, he's a damn genius. Born in the U.S. but brought up in Denmark under the tutelage of his geophysicist father and piano-teacher mother (a family structure any good genius or child prodigy should have), Haselton excelled at anything and everything academic. At 15 he won a spot on the Danish National Math Team. "You don't have to be Danish," he laughs. At 16, he finished high school early and moved back to the U.S. to pursue a full scholarship at Nashville's Vanderbilt University. At 20, Haselton had his master's degree in computer science. That same year he was hired at Microsoft, but he quit after seven months. Three months later, much to the dismay of Microsoft, Haselton won national recognition for discovering a security hole in the Redmond giant's web browser, Internet Explorer.
Haselton was 10 years old when he first confronted the issue of censorship, hearing swear words for the first time. "I remember my parents and some other adults talking about profanity to some kid," Haselton says. "I just thought, 'Why not declare on midnight, January 1, that all swear words are not swear words anymore? Then there will be no such thing as foul language.'" Haselton's curiosity about profanity, and eventually pornography, heightened when he moved back to the States.
"In Denmark it's totally different," Haselton says between Cokes at Chili's restaurant in Bellevue. (Incidentally, he drank seven cokes during our one-hour interview.) "For example, between the train station and our school, there was a strip club that had pictures of topless dancers, and kids had to walk right by it. Nobody really thought anything about it. It never occurred to me until I came back to the U.S. how something like that could never happen here. The club would have been fined and shut down," says Haselton.
Haselton's curiosity turned into action when he started Peacefire in college. At the time, Peacefire's sole purpose was to educate young people about the 1996 Online Communications Decency Act. "Many people online still remember that as the first big Internet censorship law, and it sort of drew everybody together to unite against it," Haselton says. The law, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997, made it illegal to send "indecent" material to minors over the Internet. After the victory against the Decency Act, Haselton and Peacefire started looking at a new technology that was becoming popular--Internet filters. "I was amazed that these filters had existed without anybody taking a good look at what material was being lost," says Haselton. Peacefire found a new mission as a constant thorn in the side of Internet-filter companies.
Peacefire has released 37 reports that blast different filter programs for violating free speech rights and preventing legitimate sites, like Planned Parenthood, from being seen. This month, Peacefire issued a report claiming that the Internet filters "Bess" (which is used in Seattle public schools) and "CyberPatrol" blocked political candidates in this year's Congressional race. Chris Vance (R-WA ) and Jeffery Pollock (D-OR) were among the candidates whose sites were blocked. In addition to the reports, Haselton and Peacefire infuriate the filter companies by creating software that sabotages the filters and allows people to surf the Internet freely. "It's totally arbitrary what words are considered swear words and what body parts are considered pornographic," asserts Haselton.
Haselton has come a long way since Denmark and the beginnings of Peacefire, now a 6,000-member organization. In fact, much to Haselton's dismay, he's become a celebrity. In the past year, Haselton has appeared on CNN and The Montel Williams Show. Haselton has been quoted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, and the Village Voice. What's surprising, though, is that despite all his fame and national accomplishments, Haselton is still just a 21-year-old kid.
For example, just seconds after Haselton pulls out a notebook from his green backpack to show me his complicated directions for breaking into Netscape (for extra money, Haselton legally hacks websites to look for security problems), he suddenly retreats, shoving the notebook back into his bag, while trying to steer the conversation back to Peacefire. It's not that he's afraid of giving away his hacker secrets--it's that he doesn't want to look like a geek. Haselton has a fear that seems irrational for someone who has accomplished so much--but it's clearly real. He recently hired a professional model to take his place in a photo shoot for a Village Voice article. (Haselton says he hired the model in part as a practical joke.)
Though Haselton's new fame has brought out his lack of confidence, the attention has brought his passion against censorship into the spotlight, as well as prove his sanity. "I sometimes feel like I'm involved in some huge conspiracy, an experiment to see how long it takes to drive me crazy. People are so conditioned about censorship in this country that it begins to look like I'm arguing against people who believe two plus three equals four. To me, though, it is no less ridiculous to say the word 'fuck' is going to harm someone than it would be to say two plus three equals four."