The Halifax Daily News
Sunday, August 10,1997

The new Net

`Voluntary' self-censorship plan will have a devastating effect on free speech all over the world

by Parker Barss Donham, pdonham@fox.nstn.ca

When he was a teenager, my brother-in-law blew up his hand with a home-made pipe bomb. You can still see the scar.

Fortunately, he recovered, and went on to lead what the authorities would have to concede was a productive life. He's still leading it, in fact, nearly half a century later.

Unfortunately for the authorities, there was no Internet around to blame for my brother-in-law's imprecise knowledge of the incendiary characteristics of match heads compressed within copper tubing, all this having happened in the age of the abacus. They probably blamed James Dean movies instead, or Jerry Lee Lewis lyrics.

It's in the nature of authorities, egged on by the news media, to conjure up bogeymen who threaten the established order. Bogeymen reinforce the need for authority, so the two are perverse allies. When bogeymen take the form of competing media, like films or pop songs or the Internet, newspaper editors and TV newscasters rally 'round the established order with alacrity.

That's what's behind the current rash of stories about boys who found bomb recipes on the net, which followed a rash of stories about children (or husbands, or women) corrupted by the Internet, and which will be followed as surely as the sun rises tomorrow by stories about some other Godawful menace shaking the underpinnings of civilization from within the Internet's ghastly electronic realm.

Even the ultra-conservative, Regan-appointed U.S. Supreme Court has trouble swallowing this claptrap, which is why it upended the Communications Decency Act, a law to censor the Internet, as an unacceptable assault on free speech.

Having lost that round, the Clinton administration is forging ahead with a seductively reasonable-sounding alternative, one we'll soon hear Canadian politicians praising. Clinton wants web-site owners -- everyone from Time-Life and L.L. Bean to the local Nudists' Club and the nerdy eighth-grader next door -- to rate their web pages for such qualities as sex, violence, nudity, and profane language, much as the movie industry rates film releases.

Parents could then set their browsers to screen out sites with four-letter words, bare breasts, or T.N.T. recipes, thus assuring their children a tranquil, trouble-free adolescence. Internet Service Providers, browser manufacturers, and companies that provide search engines have been clamoring aboard the net-rating and net-filtering bandwagon.

Since the ratings are all voluntary, no one could possibly object. No one, that is, except the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, and a host of computer scientists and legal scholars who decry the rating movement as an ominous ``privatization of censorship''.

``Unfortunately'', said David Sobel, legal counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, ``a lot of people think we need to knock everything down to the common denominator of the mythical six-year-old who surfs the web.''

Sobel was quoted in a recent issue of Salon Magazine, a daily on-line 'zine that rivals North America's best print journals (www.salonmagazine.com). You can find Joseph D. Lasica's comprehensive dissection of the rating/filtering threat at http://www.salonmagazine.com/july97/21st/ratings970731.html

Several companies already sell programs like NetNanny, Cybersitter, CyberPatrol, and SurfWatch, to screen out unwanted content, and these have generated controversies that foreshadow the growing debate about built-in Internet rating systems.

It turns out that a lot more than smut is being screened. The most popular net filters all turn out to block a variety of sites that are political or educational in content -- sites ranging from animal rights groups and AIDS education pages to the National Rifle Association and a panoply of feminist web pages. Worse, because each company's list of blocked sites is a trade secret, a parent has no way of knowing what's been blocked.

The Clinton initiative, embraced enthusiastically by Microsoft and Netscape, would extend this process throughout the net, by requiring all sites to submit to a ``voluntary'' rating process known as Platform for Internet Content Selection or PICS. Sites that refused to rate themselves would be listed as ``unrated'' by default -- and therefore liable to be blocked for that reason.

Although techie lore has long deemed the net immune from censorship because of its diverse structure, PICS changes that. Its blocking could take place at any level -- at an individual's computer, in a corporate Local Area Network, by an Internet Service Provider, by an internet search engine, by a browser manufacturer, or in an entire country's Internet domain. With PICS, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or China could decide to screen out information that was anti-capitalist, anti-Islamic, or anti-Communist.

``The Internet is not just another medium of choice, like television or the movies'', says Jaron Lanier, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, ``It's the future of all communications that's not face to face. To say that we're going to rate all communication is a criminal idea.''

``This will have a devastating effect on free speech all over the world -- and at home'', warns Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School.

Unlike the Communications Decency Act, PICS rating systems require no legislation. The decisions to implement them are already taking place, with alarming speed and little thought as to consequences, not in legislatures but in corporate board rooms.

And when it's all done, teenage boys will still try blowing things up. Blowing things up sounds neat, and it's exciting to see how much damage you can do. Would-be net nannies should look to the nature of boyhood itself for the cause, not to the Internet.


Copyright © 1997 by Parker Barss Donham. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.