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Government censorship--Does it protect children?

Does censorship protect children?

Some people will read the description of the D. H. Lawrence passage and say:

All right, censorship sometimes goes too far, but what are you going to do to keep my children from seeing things that upset them?

Many people are quite reasonably concerned about the negative images of women and children that appear in a lot of pornographic materials. There are several different answers that avoid the heavy hand of government censorship. Some major milestones include these:

  • In April 1995, as the debate over censorship heated up, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced a bill (S. 714) that would have initiated a search for technical methods that make it easy for users to filter what they see on electronic media such as the Internet. The bill was inserted as the Klink (D-OH) amendment into H.R. 1555.

  • In June 1995, a consortium of companies including Microsoft and Netscape Communications announced a similar initiative from the commercial side. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an industry-supported project to create standards on the Web, now coordinates this effort, called PICS.

  • The Australian Computer Society released a set of recommendations for researching the problem of potentially offensive information, including a suggestion that the community of online users be brought into the discussion. (Involving the people who are affected--now that's a new idea!)

Here are some of the methods for controlling access that have emerged during public debate. (The following descriptions do not constitute endorsement of any technique or product by the author or the Cyber-Rights working group.) For a more extensive discussion of filtering, read the CPSR Frequently Asked Questions list.

Voluntary ratings
Several individuals and organizations have suggested methods whereby information providers rate themselves, or are rated by other organizations, just as U.S. films are rated now. The best known plan is PICS, announced in October 1995 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3). In this proposal, any organization could assign ratings, and parents could use them to filter incoming Web pages. These systems, unfortunately, can facilitate censorship by governments (or corporations offering Web services) but they could also be used by individuals who just want control over what their children view.

Filtering based on origin
Certain newsgroups, such as the set, are dedicated to sexual material. By blocking these well-known sites you can keep your children from seeing the vast majority of sexual discussion. Since many products embody their developers' hidden agendas, you should choose one that lets you know what sites are blocked and gives you an easy way to add or subtract sites.

Filtering based on keywords and key phrases
Another approach is to make a list of obscene words and phrases, or ones that herald the coming of content you find objectionable, and to force the system to stop downloading material when these are found. The technology can be applied to both public postings and private email.

Subscription to an approved service
You can buy online access from an organization that monitors all content for you. Prodigy was originally set up to operate this way, but it loosened its policy after complaints (and many people also claimed that it never succeeded in blocking objectionable messages). But potentially, religious or commercial organizations can offer lists of approved sites, and you can limit your access to those.

Prosecution of child pornographers
Laws already exist against child pornography, and have been used on electronic networks. No new laws are needed that single out electronic media regarding this particular issue.

Guidance and discussion
This is ultimately the least coercive and most positive approach. Just as you caution children in how to act when they go out in public, you can talk to them about what's online and help them protect themselves.

Children have to deal with issues even more upsetting than seeing a sex act. Many of them face war, gang violence in the streets, and abuse right in the home. They need explanations, assurances, and advice from you.

How do all these methods differ from government censorship? They leave you with choice. You have responsibility for yourself and your family, and can exercise it in a mature way. Government censorship takes your freedom away and puts it in the hands of thousands of policemen and prosecutors scattered across the country--even across the globe. They are all too ready to misuse this power to repress the values most dear to you.

Author: Andrew Oram
cyber-rights @

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Last updated: 9 March 1998

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