Filtering the Net filters free speech

Intellectual freedom in America is quickly becoming just another oxymoronic conundrum like military intelligence and jumbo shrimp. And it is mostly because of sex.
Out of fear, many parents install Internet filtering software on their home computers to prevent their children from stumbling across objectionable Web sites. But mandating such software at public institutions is going too far.
A school teacher interested in birds recently attempted from the school to access a Web site about swans in Alma, Wis. Access was denied because the school’s Internet filtering software discovered the word “anal” embedded in the “swanalma” web address. Like so many others before him, the teacher quickly dismissed this obstruction of his intellectual freedom as the price we must pay in order to protect the children.
Uncanny! To think that our very same leaders who cannot wait to spend huge sums of money on computers in our public schools, to prepare our children for the next millennium, actually want to spend even more money on filtering devices that decrease the advantage of having the computers. Based on the software’s crude keyword-operating principle, students could be denied access to a broad variety of topics including psychological analysis, pharmacology (analgesics) and the Panama C(anal) — to name a few. Web sites that rhyme with oral (coral, floral, moral, pastoral) are probably also no-nos as well as the many legitimate sites about sex and sexuality — the information many young people desperately need.
This type of scenario is the result of new laws based on the now-defunct Communications Decency Act of 1996 (which the Supreme Court declared was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech) that require schools to use filters to reduce students’ access to commercial pornography. New federal initiatives such as the Child Online Protection Act and the Internet School Filtering Act are coming down the pike.
One thing is certain. No technological advancements will allow filters to avoid gaffes like the one listed above 100 percent of the time. The so-called improvements in Internet filtering software really only present a more complex set of problems. Today many filter programs are list-based, meaning that the server is hooked up to a centralized, company-managed database. Of course, the problem here is that new sites are developed daily and clever site managers change servers frequently enough to elude the software’s radar.
More sophisticated filtering programs scan not only for Web sites, but also each screen of information for inappropriate words, phrases and links before it is downloaded. This software also allows minors to partially view some sites. However, it also forces Web site managers from agencies like Planned Parenthood to avoid the forbidden phrases in order to provide information about safe sex to teens.
Advocates of mandatory use of Internet filtering software are either unaware of the broader implications or are consciously infringing on our freedom of expression under the guise of protecting the children. Although some Web sites are certainly inappropriate for many young minors (older, mature teens are an exception), the free exchange of ideas that the Internet provides is too valuable to consider restricting its flow by mandating the use of filtering software systems in public schools and libraries.
Supporters of mandatory filtering software in public schools and libraries minimize the importance of inadvertently blocking legitimate sites by noting superfluous examples such as “Superbowl XXX” and talking pigs named “Babe.” Meanwhile, they gloss over relevant sites on breast cancer, home birth, morality and sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, politically charged organizations that are sensitive to taboo issues may get censored. Some software blocked the National Organization for Women because it had links to “problem” sites that discussed lesbian and homosexual issues. Given how pervasive sexually-charged slang is in our language, the number of potentially blocked sites is astounding.
The restraints on intellectual freedom go well beyond a football fan’s inability to look up the stats on Brad Johnson, Warren Moon or (heaven forbid) Marion Butts. Extensive use of filtering software will morph into a de facto ratings system which will result in Web site operators censoring themselves to the point of being only a mild alternative to mainstream viewpoints. Just take a look at how tame other forms of media have become due to outside pressure.
Conservative activists have already pressured the print publishing industry to take fewer and fewer risks when deciding what books get printed through years of effectively speaking out against publishers who print controversial or offensive material and/or boycotting them. Publishers, who face severe financial losses by producing books that do not sell, will often choose to simply reject controversial manuscripts and effectively censor the writer prior to publication.
Of course, religious-conservative interests have downplayed their role in pre-production censorship, claiming that publishers’ decisions are simply a function of the free market. This is partially true. Nonetheless, their reputation has become a powerful force in the industry. Great books such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” (with its controversial racial theme) and “The Catcher in the Rye,” (with its anti-establishment theme and cursing) could be considered too controversial and offensive to publish.
Is this what we really want? Similar tacit restrictions also affect the recording and movie industry.
Conservative zealots know they do not need to reach every living artist to effectively censor their work. Instead, they work on scaring record executives, book publishers and major movie producers. Once sufficiently coerced, executives, producers and publishers end up doing the dirty work by rejecting artists that do not live up to the standard of acceptability. In turn, the artist either changes or becomes a janitor. Upon learning the “rules,” the artist will begin self-censoring in order to save time. The end result is a compromised version of the artist’s vision.
Until the Internet came along, authors did not have a natural avenue for exposure and distribution, with the exception of the money-intensive endeavor of self-publishing. The Internet removes most of the cost barriers involved with publishing. The success of Web publishing proves that many writers and readers are dissatisfied with mainstream publishers. The Internet is an inexpensive, accessible forum for mainstream and non-mainstream thought. Because Web publishers, unlike most media managers, do not need to concern themselves with profits — or the nightmarish logistics and costs of marketing, circulation and mass production — they have more freedom to print unconventional and/or controversial material that many deem “dangerous.”
And this scares the conservative zealots. Internet access shatters their pretense of claiming the free market is responsible for censoring alternative viewpoints. Now they must cling to the idea of protecting the children as the primary rationale for using Internet filters. This argument has some merit, but protecting children should involve more than using defective filtering to avoid talking about sex.
Instead, parents should increase the amount of time spent supervising and educating on pertinent issues, such as sex, which they might encounter on the Internet with their children. This means unbelievably frank discussions between parent and child. Quality information and active parenting will protect children from cyberspace hazards without hampering anyone’s intellectual freedom.
Ed Day’s column appears every Thursday. Send comments to [email protected]