The fact that Cyber Patrol's list of blocked sites, the "CyberNOT list", is kept secret even from customers, is the subject of much controversy. Cyber Patrol says the most important reason why their list is secret, is to keep minors without filtering software from using the list to find "inappropriate" sites. But another explanation (which has never been acknowledged by the company) is that the list contains so many errors, that it is kept secret to avoid embarrassment and possible lawsuits from owners of blocked Web sites.
Cyber Patrol claims that their blocked-site list is secret mainly to prevent minors from using it to find "inappropriate" Web sites. Susan Getgood, Vice President of Marketing for Cyber Patrol, stated in a 1996 article:
"The printout of the 'Cybernot' list never ever leaves this building. It's under lock and key... Once it left this building we'd see it posted on the Net tomorrow. It would be contributing to the problem it was designed to solve -- [it would be] the best source of indecent material anywhere."and again in a television interview with MSNBC:
- "Keys to the Kingdom", July 1996
Susan Getgood: We don't want to publish our list, for two reasons, really. One of course is that it is information that we've gathered and it's important to us as a company. But more importantly, this is a list of inappropriate sites, and we don't particularly want to publish a directory to all the nasty stuff on the Net, for those kids that don't have filtering software running.(Unfortunately, we could not find any more recent statements from Cyber Patrol on this issue; after Cyber Patrol began coming under heavy criticism in 1996-97 from Peacefire and other groups, the company all but stopped making public statements on the most controversial questions.)
- MSNBC interview, April 1997
The problem with this explanation is that anyone with uncensored Internet access doesn't need the CyberNOT list to locate "inappropriate sites". They can easily find pornographic sites by using a search engine, so keeping the CyberNOT list secret has no effect on anyone's ability to find "nasty stuff on the Net". (Our experiments with Cyber Patrol concluded that 80% of the blocked sites are non-pornographic, so it would actually be harder to find pornography using the CyberNOT list.)
Getgood's other claim was that the information on the list is "important to us as a company" -- i.e., important to keep secret from competitors who might steal the list. In fact, when a pair of programmers released a program called CPHack, which decrypted the list of sites blocked by Cyber Patrol, Mattel sued to have the program taken off the Web, as well as any mirror copies that were set up by other Web sites (including Peacefire).
But this lawsuit suggests that Cyber Patrol was more concerned about keeping the list secret from the public, then about keeping the list secret from competitors. The lawsuit had no effect on the ability of Cyber Patrol's competitors to get a copy of the list -- throughout the entire trial, CPHack was still available from a list of overseas mirror sites, which could be found using a search engine. Anyone with some time and resourcefulness -- certainly including programmers for SurfWatch or Net Nanny -- could have easily found the program and decoded Cyber Patrol's blocked-site list.
The main effect of the lawsuit was to prevent the public, including Cyber Patrol's customers, from having easy access to the list of blocked sites. The average Cyber Patrol customer is much less Net-savvy than the average programmer, so Cyber Patrol succeeded only in making it difficult for members of the general public to get a copy of their database.
Cyber Patrol has been roundly criticized for blocking political Web sites and other sites that don't meet any of their published criteria, and the 80% error rate indicates that the problem is not limited to a handful of sites. If out of every 1,000 ".com" domains on the Web, approximately 17 are incorrectly blocked by Cyber Patrol, then with over 14,000,000 .com domains in existence, the total number of incorrectly blocked domains would be about 230,000 in the ".com" namespace alone (not counting blocked sites in the .org or .net namespace).
Cyber Patrol claims that every site on their list is reviewed by a staff member before being added, but as these reports indicate, anyone with full access to the list of sites blocked by Cyber Patrol can determine in a few minutes that this is not true. Since the CyberNOT list is secret, however, doing research on Cyber Patrol's accuracy rate is much harder. In our reports, such as Blind Ballots and Amnesty Intercepted, most of the sites listed as blocked by Cyber Patrol were found through trial and error. If the CyberNOT list were not secret, Cyber Patrol would probably be deluged with complaints and possibly lawsuits from people and organizations whose Web sites were blocked.