March 17, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Products that block Internet content don’t work too well. They’re crude, betray their creators’ prejudices, and fail to provide the safety promised by their promoters. But if the Senate Commerce Committee gets its way, schools and libraries across the country will have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy and install them.

Thanks to the Telecom Act of 1996, schools and libraries are eligible for money in a universal service fund raised from telephone charges. This money is earmarked for Internet access. But on Thursday, March 12, the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee placed a new and unanticipated condition on the fund’s use. An Internet School Filtering Act (S. 1619), introduced by Senator McCain, requires the schools and libraries to install systems “to filter or block matter deemed to be inappropriate for minors.”

Money for sex is big business these days. The cover story in The Economist of February 14-20 reported that selling sex is a major industry world-wide. But you heard it here: selling products to block sex could also become lucrative (as well as useful for Congressmen trying to garner cheap publicity).

These products survive on fear and inflated expectations. How could they possibly live up to their claims? Supposedly they store knowledge about which of the thousands of Internet sites will be harmful to a child. It would be hard to find a mandate more prone to bias.

Given the number, size, and constantly changing contents of sites to be rated, it’s no surprise that studies have shown filtering products to go wildly overboard and block anything vaguely seen as “adult.” Sites discussing abortion, women’s rights, and—the touchstone for right-wing hysteria—gay/lesbian issues usually get blocked even though their content is sober, serious and socially valuable. Some products even block sites that criticize filtering products!

Still, no product can guarantee that all sites found objectionable by a parent are covered. And ratings cannot stop the rare (but most feared) abuse, that of the pedophile that lures a child away. Products that block keywords can be evaded by avoiding those keywords.

There are other industries that mislead the public so grievously, but they tend to get in trouble with Better Business Bureaus, if not attorneys general, and have difficulty renting advertisements in respectable periodicals. One certainly doesn’t expect them to get a boost from public funds by Congress, but here Senator McCain’s Commerce committee is handing the Internet filter companies a captive market.

Luckily, the Committee has heard some more skeptical voices. Senator John Breaux recommended that filters allow users to change ratings and allow adults unrestricted access. Senator Conrad Burns went even further and recommended that the requirement for filters be removed altogether and replaced with very general language requiring acceptable use policies. About the same time, Representative Markey introduced a bill matching Burns’s amendment into the House.

While sensible, these amendments would still leave a bill that intrudes uncharacteristically into the prerogatives and judgment of teachers. In any case, both amendments were tabled, although the Committee showed some openness toward them.

If anything “sexual” is blocked, what would be available to an adolescent trying to study sexual identity? If violence is blocked, how can children take a stand on human rights violations? Filtering products are inimical to the intellectual growth that schools are meant for.

The filtering bill was not the only yoke placed on the Internet by the Committee on Thursday. By almost unanimous vote—with only Ron Wyden in opposition—they passed Senator Dan Coats’s bill (S. 1482) restricting material considered “harmful to minors.” This bill has been called “CDA II” because it tries to revive the goals of the infamous Communications Decency Act that the Supreme Court struck down in June 1997.

But the Supreme Court ruling left open a dangerous loophole for further attempts at censorship: Justice O’Connor noted that restrictions could legally be placed on the Internet if it could be divided into zones like a city with a red-light district.

There are several problems with the zoning concept, notably that the artistic, scientific, and political range of Internet material is much harder to categorize than the sorts of activities traditionally relegated to red-light districts.

One critical aspect of the Internet apparently escaped both Justice O’Connor and Senator Coats: its oft-recognized “nobody knows if you’re a dog” anonymity. Servers currently find out very little about people downloading files (not even their physical locations, normally) and many who access materials that society frowns upon would like to keep it that way.

To require zoning would also require secure identification, an unprecedented and very serious infringement on the privacy of Internet users. Only China has proposed such intrusion so far; let’s not bring it to the United States.

In two ways, Coats claims to be narrower than the original CDA, and thus safe from being overturned on First Amendment grounds. First, his “harmful to minors” language is less offensive than the CDA’s reference to “indecency.” Thus, it exempts material “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” However, the territory is still rife with land mines for anyone who tries to rate such highly diverse content as the Internet presents.

Second, Coats restricts only sites engaged in “business.” While most Internet sites that charge fees for access currently are porn shops, an increasing number of mainstream news and professional sites are also starting to require payment. The scope of this bill will therefore grow.

The American urge to lasso free-ranging creatures contrasts with the more circumspect European style. The European Commission is trying in its own methodical manner to rein in the Internet, and the results may be similar. But at least they avoid the one-size-fits-all rigidity characterized by censorship laws.

And while they promote filters, they recognize in their most recent document that “their level of sophistication is still low and none have yet reached the ‘critical mass’ where users can be sure that content in which they are interested and content that they wish to avoid will be rated appropriately and that perfectly innocuous contents will not be blocked.”

A little skepticism on this side of the Atlantic would hold back embarrassing mistakes on the part of Congress. With the boondoggle that McCain’s Commerce Committee is handing them, Internet filter companies have only one thing to fear: Microsoft can build filters right into the operating system.

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