Censorship devices on the Internet

Unbeknown to the public, filtering programs block out much more than pornography

This column appeared in the September 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review.

By J.D. Lasica

When the Supreme Court struck down the pernicious Communications Decency Act this summer, the online community roundly celebrated the victory as a milestone for free speech in cyberspace.

Well, it’s time to put down the champagne glasses. Two new threats — nearly as insidious as the CDA — now loom over freedom of speech on the Net: censorware and Internet ratings.

“We’re seeing a move toward the privatizing of censorship,” warns David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s likely to destroy the Internet as it’s existed until now.”

Overstated? Perhaps not.

Parental controls are an important goal, and we’ll get there someday, but the current filtering programs on the market are clunky solutions that come nowhere close to shielding children from pornography on the Internet. Worst of all, the tools don’t allow parents to decide what their kids can or can’t see — someone else is substituting their judgment.

Programs like SurfWatch, Cyber Patrol, Cybersitter and Net Nanny have already sold millions of copies. While they do block most smut sites, they also screen out much more. Consider:

• The Web browser included with Sega’s Saturn game console allows users to block out “alternative lifestyles” — not merely Satanic cults and the like, but all information regarding gays and lesbians.

• Cyber Patrol blocks such sites as Planned Parenthood and the Usenet news groups alt.journalism.gay-press, clari.news.gays (home to AP and Reuters articles), alt.atheism and soc.feminism. (Cyber Patrol’s marketing chief, Susan Getgood, says sites are restricted for certain age groups on the basis of content and language.)

• Cybersitter, which has drawn the greatest wrath of Netizens, has in the past blocked the sites of the National Organization for Women, the entire WELL community, gay rights groups, animal rights groups and progressive political causes. It also filters words and phrases like “safe sex,” “violence,” “Sinn Fein,” “lesbian,” “fascism” and “drugs” from e-mail messages and Web pages — including newspaper sites.

Marketed largely by the Christian watchdog group Focus on the Family, the program’s manufacturer, Solid Oak Software, has responded to its critics by saying that parents have the right to prevent “objectionable material” from coming into their homes. “The majority of our customers are family-oriented people with traditional family values,” a Solid Oak executive told CyberWire Dispatch last year. (CEO Brian Milburn declined to be interviewed for this column, saying, “No one is interested in printing the truth.”)

Some of the sites listed above are no longer blocked; the sites change weekly. But which ones? Neither users nor operators of the censored sites often know about the blockage. The programs generally won’t disclose their list of blocked sites — trade secrets. (Cyber Patrol is a notable exception.)

I’ve no quarrel with parents who want to protect their children from some of the Net’s excesses. But parents also have a right to know the kinds of sites that are being blocked.

“I think parents would be surprised to learn what’s being blocked,” Sobel says. “Frankly, I don’t know why any parent would want to buy these kinds of shrink-wrapped values, which amount to someone else’s idea of what’s good for your kid.”

CHILDREN MAY BE only the first casualties in the rush to muzzle the Net. Corporate America may be next. Net Nanny Pro is being pitched to major businesses as a way “to ensure that employee productivity and corporate policies are maintained within the workplace.”

It’s unknown if any newspapers have installed such censorware in their newsrooms, but it may be only a matter of time. Meanwhile, censorware has made its way into public libraries and public schools.

The American Library Association in July adopted a resolution against the use of any filtering software in libraries because they also block constitutionally protected medical, artistic and political information. But public libraries in Boston and Austin, Texas, have already installed Cyber Patrol on their computer systems.

So what is journalism’s stake in this? Plenty.

As content providers, newspapers have an interest in not having a third party censor their content before it reaches the eyes of young readers. Pity the poor censorware-shackled student who accesses his local newspaper’s archives to write a report on the Middle East or the Oklahoma City bombing.

Journalists and publications not in the safe center of the political spectrum will be marginalized if a large portion of Net readers cannot access their views. The ideal of the Web as a democratic, grass-roots medium for expression outside the homogenized mainstream will be lost.

All journalists have a stake in preserving the free flow of constitutionally protected information on the Internet. As traditional guardians of the First Amendment, we have an obligation to ensure that a broad range of voices continues to flourish in this bright, shining new medium.

Up until now, news organizations have shirked their responsibility to the public by touting these censorial tools — but telling only half the story. It’s time for a healthy dose of public education, discussion and careful reporting to make it clear what each of these products actually does.

Warns Sobel: “If this trend continues, the Internet is not going to be the open forum of ideas that it has been. This kind of technology will sanitize content to the point that it’s even safer and less controversial than the mainstream media.”

And that would be the biggest tragedy of all.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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