"Censor's Sensibility" on censorware & ratings, from Time

Declan McCullagh declan at well.com
Mon Aug 4 17:46:53 PDT 1997




AUGUST 11, 1997
VOL. 150 NO. 6
Are web filters valuable watchdogs or just new online thought police?
   Seeking to protect fellow citizens from depravities ranging from TV
   violence to rap lyrics, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Howard Stern, some
   Americans have always had a hard time restraining themselves from
   trying to circumvent the First Amendment. And the World Wide Web, with
   its infinite plenitude of pro-Satan home pages and SEXY NUDE BABES!
   sites, has more, um, free speech in need of protection than any medium
   in history. As lurid tales of online obscenity seep into America's
   consciousness, a variety of Internet sentinels have volunteered their
   Or was that Internet censors? What one group claims as guardianship of
   public morality strikes another as unconscionable, not to mention
   unconstitutional, interference. In June the Supreme Court slapped down
   the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which prohibited the posting of
   "indecent" material over the Net. This decision in turn has created a
   hot market for products that derisive Net-heads call
   "censorware"--such software filters as CyberPatrol, NetNanny and
   SurfWatch ($29.95 to $39.95) that offer to help nervous parents keep
   inappropriate material from prying but underage eyes.
   Just what is inappropriate is a messy issue, as citizens of Loudoun
   County, Va., a conservative enclave northwest of Washington, can
   attest. Last month, after six public hearings and over the objections
   of library staff, the county library board adopted the region's most
   restrictive Internet-access policy. Henceforth, the library will arm
   its computers with filters to censor obscene sites--the definition of
   obscenity, of course, being largely up to whichever filter Loudoun
   County ends up deciding to buy. Adults who want to cruise the Net sans
   filter will have to ask the librarian to call off the watchdogs;
   children under 17 will be able to do so only if accompanied by an
   adult. "The issue is whether pornography will get into the library,"
   says board president John Nicholas. "Our task is to protect our
   A more politically fireproof sentence has yet to be conceived by
   mortal man. On the surface the policy seems reasonable, given the
   prevalence of offensive sites and the ease with which even a novice
   Web surfer can find them (though most porn sites these days can't be
   accessed without a credit card). But free-speech advocates call
   censorware a cure worse than the disease. Filtering programs block Web
   pages in one of two ways. The more primitive method is to search for
   key words in the pages' titles, a system with all the subtlety of a
   Gatling gun. America Online, for instance, once banned the word breast
   from some areas of its service, which outraged breast-cancer sufferers
   locked out of their bulletin boards. And SurfWatch legendarily banned
   sites featuring the word couples, only to discover that that word
   appears on the White House's official site.
   A better method is to study individual sites--yes, that means hundreds
   of thousands of them, one at a time--and then place them on yes or no
   lists that can be updated as new pages pop up in the Web's endless
   sprawl. A program called CyberPatrol identifies 12 categories of
   troublesome material (violence, profanity, sexual acts and so on) that
   parents can block at their discretion. The software can also be
   adjusted for different age groups. "My six-year-old son doesn't need
   to know how to put on a condom," says CyberPatrol spokeswoman Sydney
   Rubin. "But I'll sure want him to know when he's 13."
   Opponents say the filter companies' banned lists can also reflect
   ideological biases. CyberSitter, the most aggressively conservative
   filtering program, is infamous for blocking access to the National
   Organization for Women's Website as well as entire Internet providers
   like Echo, New York City's oldest online community. Gay-themed
   sites--big surprise--suffer mightily. CyberPatrol blocks the Queer
   Resources Directory; CyberSitter bans the alt.politics.homosexual
   newsgroup; SurfWatch blocks ClariNet's AP and Reuters articles about
   AIDS and HIV.
   If conservative parents want software that will censor any Website
   that the Rev. Jerry Falwell wouldn't say amen to, that's their
   privilege. But free-speech proponents say customers looking for
   ideology-free screening might not be aware of how much they're
   missing. Censorware produces unpredictable and often unwanted results
   (see box), and most filterers consider their blacklists trade secrets.
   This puts Loudoun County in the position of letting private firms pass
   judgment on the contents of a medium that's supposed to offer easy
   access to all--a notion that's especially dubious in the case of the
   "free public library," Internet provider of last resort for those who
   can't afford a computer. "We serve the information needs of the whole
   community," says Judith Krug, director of the American Library
   Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "Identifying one
   standard for everyone violates the rights of everybody else."
   Such First Amendment echoes make even conservative Congressmen
   nervous. "I endorse the notion of filtering devices at home," says Bob
   Goodlatte, a pro-CDA Republican Representative from Virginia, "but
   there's certainly a legitimate debate as to how to do it in libraries
   without introducing a major form of censorship."
   There are, however, minor forms, including asking the Websites to rate
   their content "voluntarily." Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel for
   the American Civil Liberties Union, is particularly disturbed by the
   growing political support for self-censorship. "Rating systems may
   work, however badly, in TV or movies, where there are relatively few
   programs and armies of lawyers," he says. "But with E-mail, chat rooms
   and newsgroups, the sheer volume is overwhelming."
   Nonetheless, self-censorship is starting to look like the wave--or at
   least one very big wave--of the future. Microsoft's Internet Explorer
   Web browser already includes a ratings program called RSACi. It has
   emerged as the leading Net-rating system that allows Web proprietors
   to rate their own sites instead of letting NetNanny and SurfWatch
   employees pass judgment for them. And rival Netscape, bowing to
   pressure from the White House at last month's censorware summit (Bill
   Clinton, predictably, loves ostensibly family-friendly software
   filters), has agreed to use rating systems in the next version of its
   browser. Even news organizations, whose free-speech obsession borders
   on the fanatic, are rating themselves (see THE NETLY NEWS). The
   Webmasters' private initiative, though, may not cool legislative ardor
   for rewriting the cda. Neither filtering software nor self-rating is
   sufficient to clean up the Net, in the view of Senator Dan Coats of
   Indiana. Filters are "a good first step," he says, but "it's a tax on
   the family--the innocent family." Of course, the same could be said
   for clear-cutting the Web's forests of unfettered speech.
   --Reported by Declan McCullagh and Bruce van Voorst/Washington
   Some surprising sites get trapped in the filters
   (www.heritage.org/heritage/) The Heritage Foundation
   (www.mit.edu/activities/safe) M.I.T. free-speech society
   (news:clari.tw.health.aids) Reuters articles about AIDS
   (www.odci.gov/) U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
   (www.cs.cmu.edu/~spok/banned-books.html) Banned-books archive
   (www.now.org/) National Organization for Women
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