June 23, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The ACLU picked a good moment last week to release their “Censorship In a Box” report, which lambasts the use of Internet filtering software in libraries. After a year of flustered retrenchment by would-be censors following the historic defeat of the Communications Decency Act (an effort that the publisher of the American Reporter participated in), attempts at content control are on the rise again around the world.

Legislators in Canada and Sweden have recently introduced bills restricting online material. Both make Internet service providers responsible for monitoring content, a no-no whose technical infeasibility has often been explained. (There is just too much content on the Internet for monitoring, and it exists in dozens of formats that take time to decode and view.) The impacts of monitoring on privacy would also be troubling. Both laws impose the impossible monitoring requirement, and the Canadian law even requires licensing for Internet providers.

Neither the Canadian law nor the Swedish one is expected to actually pass. But they show that media-conscious legislators are back to their tricks of exploiting the Internet’s colored reputation for local publicity.

The same could be said concerning two bills in the U.S. Congress (described in another article), Senator Coats’s “harmful to minors” act, S. 1482 (dubbed by opponents “CDA 2”) and Senator McCain’s Internet School Filtering Act, S. 1619. Both try to take a slice of the CDA’s cake while avoiding the ingredients that got it declared unconstitutional. But each is still meant mainly to appeal to a fearful segment of the public that approves censorship.

The most shocking of recent Internet events was the conviction of Felix Somm, manager of a German CompuServe subsidiary, for allowing CompuServe members to access child pornography and Nazi propaganda. A campaign by Bavarian authorities against the provider had begun back in 1995, but the harsh verdict was unexpected because the German parliament had passed a law in the meantime that sensibly declared ISPs not responsible for materials transmitted over their networks.

In fact, so persuasive were the grounds for dismissal that the prosecutors in the Somm case came around to the defense’s point of view during the case! In this context the judge’s drive toward conviction took on a sense of Kafkaesque irrationality. (Perhaps the Madwoman of Chaillot would be a more suitable reference.)

German civil liberties activists (some apologizing for the backwardness of their Southern jurisdictions) expect the case to be won on appeal, but worry about a chilling effect on Internet providers, users, and content servers.

The European Commission continues to push for Internet filtering on a large scale, investing millions of euros-to-be in development and policy plans like their comprehensive action plan. Their solutions include hot lines for reporting illegal content, which appear to be an appropriate response but have been found in practice to provoke overly cautious measures by Internet providers. And their notion of filtering is imposed from above rather than meant to enable citizens: the filtering would be a two-tier kind of censorship, with sites chosen by governments and cut off by Internet providers. The process has been analyzed and criticized in a paper by Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK).

Mexico too is beginning to worry about the Internet, because of its nimble exploitation by the Zapatista movement to air their viewpoints in other countries. With few people able to afford Internet access, the transmissions have little effect inside Mexico itself. But it’s still an embarrassment to the government, which has seen its official reports (such as a disavowal of last December’s massacre in Chiapas) exposed as false.

An IPS article from April indicated that Mexican law enforcement is frustrated because they cannot enforce the law against media transmissions that contain “praise for a crime” or “incitement to rebellion.” Like European regulators, legal experts in Mexico are searching for a way to enforce content laws on an international scale.

China, as detailed in an earlier article, strictly limits who gets Internet access and to what material. Saudi Arabia is planning something similar. Turkey recently arrested a student for online political comments.

So it is high time for civil libertarians to ramp up their efforts and restore the momentum of the anti-CDA movement. The ACLU report is a good reminder of everything that is wrong with filters: arbitrariness, overly broad exclusions, political bias, hidden agendas, and opaque decision-making processes concerning what to include or exclude.

But in addition, the ACLU points toward a positive way forward. Yes, there is a way to protect children from unsavory online material—and that is to educate them to evaluate everything they see and read critically.

The report suggests, “Successful completion of a seminar similar to a driver’s education course could be required of minors who seek Internet privileges in the classroom or library. Such seminars could emphasize the dangers of disclosing personally identifiable information such as one’s address, communicating with strangers about personal or intimate matters, or relying on inaccurate resources on the Net.”

So there’s no reason to shield children from hate speech. But it is important to teach the history of the Holocaust, of lynchings and Jim Crow, and of other social issues that help them evaluate propaganda.

Similarly, there is little harm in viewing pornography if viewers understand that it presents a fictitious view of sexuality and promotes a view of women as objects. Of course, there’s a risk in taking this approach. People trained to apply this kind of analysis could turn it to traditional advertising, with a concomitant potential redirection of economic resources.

The role of information’s structure and presentation has long been emphasized by Karen Coyle, a librarian at the University of California and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. She says, “The children’s section of a library or bookstore is not just the adult section with references to sex removed. Nor does removing sexually explicit material from the Internet make it ‘appropriate for children.’ Children need to be presented with materials on all topics at the right educational levels.”

The ACLU’s other proposals included the development of Acceptable Use Policies, the establishment of time limits on computer use, the promotion of recommended-reading lists, and the installation of privacy screens on public terminals.

The people who want filters are political brothers of those who clear the homeless and mentally ill from city streets. Each would rather avoid challenging aspects of life than face them. But the rest of us need not be hostages to their narrow-mindedness.

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