Monday, December 7, 1998

Week of 12/07/1998

A Filtering Quandary
A Fine Line Being Crossed?
- by David Matthews 2

On November 23rd, a federal district judge ruled that the Loudoun County Library System in Virginia cannot use filtering programs on their Internet-connected computers. The decision was seen as a blessing to free speech supporters and yet another blow to censorship-happy moralists.

But was it that simple?

Don’t get me wrong, folks. I haven’t sold my soul to the religious wrong or changed my mind about Internet censorship. However, the issue of filtering software is not as cut-and-dry as the media would have us think.

Filtering software operates on a very simple premise - if you know the URL of the site that contains offensive material, you can block that site to anyone who doesn’t have a certain password. The catch, however, is to know which site contains offensive material, and many of the filtering companies offer regular updates to their customers.

It’s not a perfect system to safeguard against kids finding offensive materials, and that has been the complaint by power-addicted moralists who placed their support on heavy-handed censorship legislation like the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act (also known as CDA 2).

But when the CDA was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, a strange reversal of direction occurred. Pro-freedom groups like the American Library Association, who once welcomed the support of filtering groups like Surf Watch against the CDA, were suddenly against filtering software. Worse yet, the ALA started referring to them as "censorware." Moralists were quick to pick up on this loss, and started to use government to mandate such filtering software be used for public facilities that have access to the Internet. That led us, once again, to the courts.

Now let’s be brutally honest here. NO system will be 100% effective in keeping kids away from sites that parents deem to be offensive! It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about censorship legislation, filtering software, online ratings systems, or domain name zoning regulations. The ONLY way to make sure that kids don’t access offensive materials online is to not let them go online in the first place. But with the whole world telling you that you have to have your kids online, that isn’t too realistic.

Perhaps one of the worst decisions our elected officials made has been trying to rush EVERY school and EVERY library online without considering the realities of the Internet. The Internet is perhaps the ultimate haven of free speech, a place where any voice can be heard, no matter if that voice is offensive. It was never designed for the kind of supervised access online services like Prodigy, CompuServe, MSN, or America Online provide. But that access is there, and now the problem is trying to deal with it without trampling on the freedom of speech that has been reaffirmed in the courts.

The moralists already have the easy option - reduce the level of online speech to that acceptable for a minor. It is unconstitutional, anti-American, unrealistic, and virtually unenforceable without creating the tyranny they so covertly desire. Worse yet, moralists like Bruce Taylor and Donna Rice-Hughes are ever quick to jump on the censorship soapbox with snake-oil claims of "rabid porn addicts" that hearken back to days of Joe McCarthy’s ever-changing and non-existent "communist" list. Their constant ramblings of over-exaggerated bogeymen continue to demonstrate how moralists have been, are, and will continue to be a great disservice to America.

The only realistic option when dealing with the Internet is the same one for any medium of communication: personal responsibility. That means that parents, not government officials, need to do their jobs as parents and screen computer access.

That brings us back to the issue of schools and libraries.

You know folks, I’m in a bit of a quandary when it comes to filtering software. I have for many years now pushed the use of filters as an alternative to government censorship. Many corporations use similar measures at the workplace, and have done so apparently with the blessings of the courts. Yet at the same time, some filter programs have been just as restrictive as moralists would have government be. Certainly the exchange of information which the Internet promises cannot be met to libraries where that information is the key to such an institution. Somewhere, there has to be a balance between protecting kids and censoring adults.

Loudoun County made a fatal error in dictating that ALL computers with Internet access must have filtering software, and then set some of the most restrictive filters available. Their result then was to censor speech, not to "protect children," as they claimed they were doing. It was the blanket censorship policy that the court found unconstitutional, not the filtering software itself.

So what must school administrators and library officials do, then?

For starters, much like some libraries now have sections devoted to children and sections devoted to adults, computer access in libraries needs to be equally divided - filtered for children, unfiltered for adults. Parents should be aware that even with the best filtering systems, some "offensive" materials may still be accessed, so they should not let their kids surf the Internet unsupervised. The Internet is no more of a babysitter than would the television set, and should never be used as such.

Administrators should also review their filtering software periodically to see if the wrong material is being filtered. Censoring out every site with the word "breast" also means censoring out sites that deal with breast cancer, a fact that one adult Loudoun library user found out herself. It’s not an easy process, but one that must be done. They should also set "acceptable use" policies concerning things like sites to visit, spamming, downloading files, etc. and have those policies visible for all users to see.

Internet filters are a wonderful tool, but they are not perfect, nor should they be used in substitute of personal responsibility. That goes for home use as well as use in the libraries and schools.

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