Monday, December 14, 1998

Week of 12/14/1998

Brand X
How "zoning" the Internet is a bad idea
- by David Matthews 2

I guess it’s inevitable. Create a new frontier, a new place where the old laws and old standards don’t apply, and every would-be control freak with delusions of grandeur will scream bloody murder for those old standards to be applied.

Case in point - zoning laws. For those whose understanding of zoning laws are limited to the simplistic Monopoly rules that houses are green and hotels are red, be aware that depending on the rules created by state and local municipalities, the most powerful place to be in business is sitting on the zoning board. Not only do you get to decide what sort of business comes into town, but you also have the power to micromanage it down to the last nail used to hang up the "Open for business" sign.

Moralists who are frustrated in not being able to otherwise ban or prohibit actions they deem to be offensive, find that the local zoning board is an excellent weapon to wreck havoc in society. Zoning laws grew from the days of the Greeks and the early Roman Empire from the means to create aesthetic beauty to the means to control and regulate social growth. In most cases, the zoning laws are general enough to allow most businesses without problem. Most only pertain to controlling growth to an optimal level so the infrastructure can keep up, making sure the buildings live up to an optimal measure of safety, and that the buildings aren’t constructed using substandard materials.

But abuses by moralists in the zoning laws often have little recourse. Courts favor zoning laws as the means to regulate growth and rarely override them, no matter how absurd some of those laws are. Some of the more blatant, and absurd, abuses of zoning laws include prohibiting freelance writers from working in the privacy of their homes, determining what shade of white should be appropriate in a person’s living room, and the tearing down of homes because they interfere with someone’s view of the sunset or simply because a zoning board member thought it looked "aesthetically appalling" when seen in a dream.

In the past few months, a move has been suggested by moralists to "zone" the Internet. Thwarted by the US Supreme Court in their efforts to censor the Internet of all things they find "offensive" through the Communications Decency Act, they have picked up the dissenting view of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and demanded that the Internet be "zoned" by creative use of domain names.

Domain names are the addresses used to find certain sites on the Internet. Most sites have simple domain names like to identify themselves to the public. Most domain names have suffixes that end with .com (commercial), .net (network), .org (organization), .gov (government), .edu (educational), or the two letter suffix of certain nations. Recently, the control of domain name registration has been under dispute, and the whole realm of domain names would be opened up, allowing more suffixes.

In theory, sexually-explicit material would be given a new domain suffix, such as .xxx or .sex, that would clearly identify the site as one pertaining to sex. So for a publication like Penthouse, they would go from to online. Moralists contend that this would make it a whole lot easier to block out sites they would deem to be offensive to themselves and to children, no different in application than the scarlet "Brand X" letter they pin on movies and video tapes.

But who determines which sites get the dreaded "Brand X" suffix? And what would those standards be?

For instance, would news that discussed President Clinton’s alleged dalliances with a White House intern in detail mean that the site would get the "Brand X" suffix? It is, after all, a mature subject matter not meant for children. Will "established" news sites like MSNBC or CNN have to use "Brand X" suffixes if they want to discuss such issues?

Or how about organizations that deal with adult-oriented topics like breast cancer or AIDS? Will groups like the American Cancer Society, or the Center for Disease Control have to change their suffixes to .sex in order to get discuss these issues?

How about adult publications that discuss serious news issues? Playboy Magazine comes to mind. Last year, Playboy made news by publishing online what they contended was a confession from Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to his lawyers before his conviction. Playboy also has a history of interviewing politicians and celebrities whose words make the news. Jimmy Carter’s admittance of having "lust in his heart" made news back in 1976. Clint Eastwood, the legendary actor and one-time mayor of a small town in California, created a few headlines by saying for the first time he was a libertarian. This year Mike Tyson’s interview in Playboy also caught the attention of the press. Would this be considered news or sex?

And whose standards would apply in getting this "Brand X" suffix? Remember that the Internet is a GLOBAL domain, not just confined to America. (A fact that I am often reminded of by my international readers.) What would be appropriate even in the most conservative of US regions would still be considered pornography in certain Islamic countries. Would Sports Illustrated have to censor its online publications when the swimsuit issue comes out in order to escape the "Brand X" suffix? Would a site dedicated to "Baywatch" episodes have to be given the "Brand X" suffix even though they would only show people in swimsuits? Would Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s Of Hollywood have to get "Brand X" suffixes on their online catalogues because they deal in lingerie?

Let’s be brutally honest here. The moralists don’t want to answer those questions, because it throws a kink in what they would deem to be a flawless counterattack against free speech in America, if not the whole world. Essentially this is CDA-lite, the regulation of content of speech that the US Supreme Court declared in ACLU Vs Reno was a gross violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed in the US Constitution.

But if moralists want to "zone" the Internet, why not take a different approach? Instead of trying to corral speech that some moralist would deem offensive, why not create a domain suffix called .kid for all the sites deemed child-friendly? That way, instead of trying to get the whole world to bow down to the ravings of paranoid social busybodies, they can create a small subsection of the Internet that they know kids can access without concern.

Think about it. Parents can then limit access on their browsers to exclude anything that doesn’t have a .kid suffix on it and know that their kids will only be able to go to child-friendly sites on the Internet. News agencies can also create special child-friendly news sites like www.kidscnn.kid without having to censor their main news sites. You know that toy companies and cereal companies will be quick to pick up on this new .kid suffix and create child-friendly sites of their own. And because you’d have to apply to get a .kid suffix, you have some control over the kind of sites that would be allowed to appeal to kids. This is not an unrealistic level of control, since the domain suffix .edu is under similar control to ensure it is being used by legitimate educational institutions.

Perfect, right? Kids would be able to surf the web without concerns from parents, and the freedom of speech would still be intact because only a small portion of the Internet would be self-regulated, allowing free speech to reign unhindered everywhere else.

There’s just one problem - the parents. Moralistic parents are incredibly stubborn and self-centered. They refuse to do to themselves what they expect the whole world to do in the name of their children. When faced with the burden of responsibility, they feign both ignorance and incompetence in order to get government to do their bidding. The same amount of time used to sit down and figure out how to use the Internet safely, they instead spend calling up their legislators and complain that the Internet is a danger to their kids. The same amount of money that could be spent on manuals or seminars on how to use Internet browsers so they can be more aware than their own kids, is instead sent to special interest groups who lobby Congress to limit speech to what would be "safe" or "child-friendly".

Then there’s the real motivation behind the "zoning" – so moralists can force service providers to censor out those sites. As long as the onus is on the parents to monitor their children, the self-appointed crusaders of self-righteousness have little power over what they deem to be offensive, be it sex, language, or violence. If they can’t place the burden on government, they’ll try to place the burden on the providers of that information. They just need one central location that they can point fingers at, blame, cajole, penalize, punish, and coerce into submission. They have zero leverage on a one-to-one basis with individuals.

Remember folks, the moralist acts not out of concern for their own children, nor of your own, but rather out of fear and doubt of the strength of their own beliefs. They are terrified of other people having thoughts that are different than their own, and thus want the whole world to kowtow to their beliefs.

Zoning power is a legitimate power that has already been abused badly without feeding it to the Internet. It has its uses, but not when it concerns the content of speech or expression.

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