Internet free speech advocates won a major victory when the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, finding that "the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship." The ink was barely dry on the Court's decision when some started touting a new approach to regulating online content -- "filtering and blocking" and "voluntary self-labeling." President Clinton announced that "to help to speed the labeling process along, several Internet search engines ... will begin to ask that all Web sites label content when applying for a spot in their directories."
While such an approach might seem preferable to CDA-type legislation at first glance, imagine an Internet where only "PG" rated content could be found through the search engines we've come to depend on. Net users should educate themselves on the issue and express their views on the "voluntary" decisions that could drastically alter the medium.
Following are some of the problems raised by blocking content on the internet:
No blocking technology is clever enough to block even 10% of the pornography on the Internet unless it effectively blocks most or all of the materials on the Internet. This is because of the inherent complexity of human language and thought, not a matter of simply improving blocking technology.
Blocking technology always blocks more material than the small proportion of pornography it is able to block, thus significantly damaging the most basic and practical uses of the Internet, not to mention the free speech rights and civil liberties of every person accessing, publishing, or broadcasting on the Internet. Most of the material on the Internet is informative and useful and should not inadvertently or intentionally get blocked.
Even the simplest blocking technology is difficult to operate in a way that permits local control over the specific type and scope of materials blocked, so people who have to use blocking technology depend on "experts" in blocking technology companies who decide what they should and should not see, then keep this information secret even from those using the blocking technology. (Only one blocking technology company makes the list of blocked sites available to customers or the general public.)
Blocking technology companies make lots of mistakes in assigning sites to block lists and almost always rely on automated systems for making content decisions. The process is fraught with error and there are rarely effective means to check whether a site is blocked inappropriately, to correct the problem, to override the blocking, or to appeal the multitude of incorrect decisions made by blocking technology companies.
When the U.S. government requires blocking in public schools and libraries, the government mandates censorship in direct conflict with the U.S. Constitutional guarantees to free expression and freedom of association. Laws prohibiting the production and distribution of child pornography and obscenity already apply to the Internet.
Blocking technology blocks "controversial" materials related to certain issues or communities disproportionately more than other materials, thus unfairly discrimination against whole communities of people accessing, publishing, or broadcasting on the Internet.
Blocking technology operation can be relatively easily bypassed even by children.
Use of blocking technology causes problems with computers during installation, maintenance, upgrades, and removal that negatively impacts the use and performance of the computers, including computer crashes, access time delays, web display errors, and other problems impacting the ability to access the Internet effectively.
Internet blocking technology is an unsuccessful solution to an important problem. Parents, teachers, librarians, administrators, and local communities must work together to come up with constitutionally acceptable solutions that encourage learning in a safe environment on the Internet, rather than relying on an unworkable technological fix.
Materials & ResourcesComments of EPIC and the ACLU on the Effectiveness of "Internet Protection Measures" (PDF) -- Joint submission to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration detailing the flaws of Internet blocking technology.
A three-judge panel in Philadelphia ruled (also available in PDF) in May 2002 that the mandatory use of filtering software in public libraries violates the First Amendment because it would restrict substantial amounts of protected speech "whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest."
"Faulty Filters" -- Report from EPIC finds that filtered search engines typically block 99% of kid-friendly material on the Internet. The study was based on searches for information about such topics as the "American Red Cross," "Thomas Edison," and "Smithsonian Institution." Net Shepherd has responded to the report -- "We applaud EPIC's thoroughness and objective review of our site and will use the report to help us improve the service."
Internet Free Expression Alliance -- Coalition working to promote public debate on proposals to rate and filter Internet content
Reno v. ACLU -- The landmark Suptreme Court decision on Internet free speech
The White House "Strategy for a Family Friendly Internet"
SafeSurf's "Proposal for a Safe Internet Without Censorship" (a scheme for imposing criminal penalties for "mislabeling" websites)
Internet Family Empowerment White Paper (Center for Democracy and Technology -- "those seeking to supervise their children's Internet access must have easy access to effective blocking and filtering technology")
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) page on PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection)
PICS, Censorship, & Intellectual Freedom FAQ (by Paul Resnick of W3C)
Information about Labeling and Rating Systems ( MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression)
"What censorware really blocks (history, LONG)" (from the Fight-Censorship list)
Campaign for Internet Freedom (British anti-PICS site)
The Net Labeling Delusion (Australian anti-PICS site)
Filtering Facts (group that promotes use of filtering software in libraries)
Peacefire (young people's organization that addresses filtering and blocking issues)
Position StatementsThe American Library Association's statement on the use of filtering and blocking software and resolution opposing the use of such systems in libraries
ACLU statement on "voluntary" Internet censorship (7/16/97)
ACLU White Paper -- "Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? -- How Rating and Blocking Proposals May Torch Free Speech on the Internet "
CPSR statement -- " Computer Professionals Question Internet Filtering Agreement" (7/18/97)
EFF Discussion Draft -- "Public Interest Principles for Online Filtration, Ratings and Labelling Systems" (2/28/97)
News & Commentary"Coalition Forms to Debate Rating of Net Content" -- Yahoo! Internet Life (11/26/97)
"Lobbying on Eve of Clinton Net Summit" -- Wired News (12/1/97)
"The Battle for Kids Begins" -- Inter@ctive Week (12/1/97)
"Voluntary Curbs on Net Gain Backing" -- Washington Post (12/1/97)
"Conference on Children and Net Finds Little Consensus" -- New York Times (12/2/97)
"A Game of Hide vs. Seek: There's No Consensus About Systems for Rating Internet Sites" -- Washington Post (12/3/97)
NEWS.COM "Perspective" on the Internet Online Summit (12/3/97)
"The Danger of Private Cybercops" -- New York Times Op-Ed (12/4/97)
"The Self-Appointed Cops of the Information Age" -- New York Times (12/7/97)
"Why Johnnie Can't Surf" -- TIME Magazine (12/15/97)
"Censorship Problems Increase When Moved to Private Sector" -- New York Times (12/15/97)
"Rules for Filtering Web Content Cause Dispute" -- New York Times (1/19/98)
"Nation Trending Toward Do-it-Yourself Censorship" (by Tony Mauro, The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center)
"X-Rated Ratings?" (by J.D. Lasica, American Journalism Review)
"At the Censorware Summit" (from the Netly News)
"Parental Discretion Advised" (from Scientific American)
"Internet V-Chip Group Hug" (from NEWS.COM)
"Keys to the Kingdom" (by Brock Meeks & Declan McCullagh)
"Rating the Net" (law review article by Jonathan Weinberg, to be published in the Hastings Communications & Entertainment Law Journal)
Nat Hentoff's critique of "voluntary" TV ratings -- which raises many of the same issues involved in website rating schemes (from the Washington Post)
"News Sites Worry About Filtering" (from NEWS.COM)
"Ratings Today, Censorship Tomorrow" -- critical, in-depth examination of Internet rating (from Salon Magazine)
"The Trouble with PICS" (from FEED Magazine)
"Civil Libertarians Watch Library Board's New Internet Policy" -- a "filtering" controversy arises in Loudon County, Virginia (from the Washington Post)
"Censor's Sensibility: Are Web Filters Valuable Watchdogs or Just New Online Thought Police?" (from TIME Magazine)
"Push for a Content-Rating System Becomes an International Affair" (from New York Times CyberTimes)
"Filters and the Public Library: A Legal and Policy Analysis" ( by Mary Minow)
"The V-Chip: Coming Up Short or Unconstitutional Overreaching?" (by Kevin W. Saunders) -- the related issue of "filtering" television content
Express Your Views
Contact the major search engine sites and tell them what you think about the idea of requiring "ratings" for websites:AltaVista (firstname.lastname@example.org)
October 01, 2002
Page URL: http://www.epic.org/free_speech/censorware/default.html