Bennett Haselton (born November 20, 1978) is the American founder of Circumventor.com and Peacefire.org, two US-based websites dedicated to combating Internet censorship. Peacefire.org is focused on documenting flaws in commercial Internet blocking programs. Circumventor.com is dedicated to distributing anti-censorship tools to users in countries such as China and Iran, and as of 2011 has over 3 million subscribers through distribution channels including email and Facebook pages.
At 21, Haselton testified before the US Child Online Protection Commission (COPA Commission), a congressionally appointed panel mandated by the Child Online Protection Act, where he presented evidence that the error rate in most commercial blocking programs was much higher than commonly believed. In 2007, he testified as an expert witness for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, in the ACLU's lawsuit against the North Central Regional Library District, where a filter was enforced on library computers for all patrons including adults. Haselton's tests showed that sites which the library filter had blocked as "pornography" included a church, an immigration rights group, and the Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra, and overall that about one in four .org sites blocked by the library filter was blocked in error.
Early life and education
Haselton was born in Oklahoma. Haselton's father is a geophysicist and his mother is a piano teacher. Haselton lived in England and Denmark and graduated from Copenhagen International School. At 15, Haselton became a member of the Danish National Math Team, saying that "you don't have to be Danish."
Haselton's interest in censorship dates from when he was 10 years old and heard 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 also credits growing up in Denmark for his views on censorship. "In Denmark it's totally different," Haselton says. "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 US how something like that could never happen here. The club would have been fined and shut down."
In 1995 Haselton returned to the United States for college. Haselton earned a master's degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University. After graduation, Haselton worked on Visual Basic at Microsoft for seven months. The New York Times said on May 15, 2000 that Haselton was fired from Microsoft however Haselton says that he resigned in good standing and "showed the NYT editors a copy of [his] personnel file from Microsoft which has "Term. type: Voluntary" and "Term reason: Resignation" printed on it, but the paper has still not corrected the article."
Haselton started PeaceFire in August 1996 to educate young people about the 1996 Online Communications Decency Act, which made it illegal to send indecent material to minors over the Internet. "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 Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997.
Haselton believes that minors should have the same First Amendment rights as adults. "I think intellectual development is one of the fundamental human rights, and it's also a right that people under 18 have," says Haselton. "It's totally arbitrary what words are considered swear words and what body parts are considered pornographic," says Haselton. "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," said Haselton. "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."
Peacefire first received national attention in December 1996 when CYBERsitter added PeaceFire to their list of "pornographic" Web sites. CYBERsitter also sent a letter to PeaceFire's ISP threatening to block all of their hosted sites if they continued to host PeaceFire. Two years later in October 1998 PeaceFire started posting information about how to disable blocking programs. "I was amazed that these filters had existed without anybody taking a good look at what material was being lost," says Haselton.
Haselton has come under criticism for starting PeaceFire. "When he started Peacefire, he was a kid himself," says Marc Kanter, marketing director for a software company that makes the filtering program CYBERsitter. "Basically he was enticing minors into his beliefs and activities, which was to undermine parents' rights. As an adult now, he should know better than that." Haselton opposes such blocking software. "This is something that practically nobody else is working on, and only a couple of people in the world actually know as much about the blocking software issue as I've found out," said Haselton .
The New York Times reported on June 19, 2006 that reporters from the Los Angeles Times were blocked from accessing PeaceFire from their office. "It just seemed odd that the class of people that we rely on for our information have less Internet freedom than a citizen in China," said Haselton. "We rely on reporters for our information of what's going on in society, and they can't necessarily do their job if a third party is deciding what they can see."
Haselton has appeared on CNN and The Montel Williams Show to discuss First Amendment issues and been quoted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, and the The Village Voice.
Other Internet activities
Haselton's other activities include "bug hunter, spam litigant, censorware buster, [and] circumvention software provider."
Haselton has won 10 small-claims cases and thousands of dollars in judgments against senders of unwanted e-mail. Haselton has become one of the most well known anti-spam plaintiffs in the United States. Dan Birchall, Executive director of the anti-spam SpamCon Foundation, wrote, "What he's doing definitely has an effect. It raises awareness of the laws that are available."
In 2003, Haselton found out that the PeaceFire.org domain had been placed on a blacklist by the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) list because of complaints that his ISP, Media3 Technologies, refused to cut off service to companies suspected of "doing business with spammers." Blacklists, also called "block lists" or "blackhole lists," are lists of Internet addresses associated with known spammers that are used to block all incoming e-mail from those addresses. It took Haselton over a year to get off the MAPS list. "The biggest problem I have, by far, with any of it, is that [administrators who use blacklists] hide the fact that any of it's going on so that their users won't know and therefore won't complain," Haselton said.
- "ALA: Select Testimonies to the Child Online Protection Act Commission". American Library Association.
- "Bradburn v. NCRL Decision". Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.
- CNET. "Newsmaker: Cracking the great firewall of China" by Paul Festa. May 20, 2003.
- the Stranger. "Regular Genius: Bennett Haselton Attacks Censorship So We Can Say Fuck" by Pat Hearney. November 29, 2000.
- Copenhagen International School. "Dear Fellow CIS'ers (no "former" CIS'ers – it's a lifetime designation)" by Bennett Haselton.
- New York Times. "Ex-Microsoft Employee Publicizes a Potential Security Flaw" by Michael Brick. May 15, 2000.
- PublicEditorMyAss.com. "My experience trying to get the New York Times to correct an online article" by Bennett Haselton.
- PeaceFire.org "About Peacefire.org"
- Seattle Post Intelligencer. "'Supergeek' fights spam" by Luis Cabrera. June 3, 2002.
- New York Times. "Some Sites Off Limits, Even in a Newsroom" by Sara Ivry. June 19, 2006.
- Information World Review. "Security hole found in Netscape" by John Geralds. April 21, 2000.
- Washington Post. "Blacklists vs. Spam" by David McGuire. May 14, 2003.