The Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Saturday, March 13, 1999
Opinion

Internet deserves protection from governmental intrusion

by Jeffrey Shallit, shallit@efc.ca

Shallit's first law: "Every new medium of expression will be used for sex."

Shallit's second law: "Every new medium of expression will come under attack, usually because of Shallit's first law."

I jokingly coined these laws four years ago, when the Internet sex panic first began. Back then, the University of Waterloo was shocked to discover that pornography was accessible on its computer networks.

Instead of courageously defending its traditional role as protector of free inquiry, the University cravenly banned some computer newsgroups dealing with sexual topics.

As Internet use has grown, the sex panic has spread to other segments of society. Time magazine gave front-cover exposure to a Carnegie Mellon University study that claimed porn was rampant on the Internet -- only to furiously backpedal when it was later revealed that the "study" was actually a project of undergraduate Marty Rimm, who had a dubious history of sensational exposes, and who apparently planned to sell the study to pornographers to improve their marketing skills.

In 1996, a conservative US congress tried to restrict pornography on the Internet by passing the Communications Decency Act (CDA), but this law was thankfully struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Canada, Reform MP Myron Thompson complained about "highly pornographic, illegal stories available on Internet ... that are reaching our children." And, he added, "This smut must be stopped."

Ironically, the panic over Internet pornography has obscured the real issue. Instead of worrying about what material should be censored, we should be agitating for methods to determine what information on the Internet actually merits our attention -- and the attention of our kids -- because of its quality, accuracy, and importance. A good start in this direction is the Kitchener Public Library's own "Librarian's Picks" page, on the web at http://www.kpl.org/picks/default.htm

Is there pornography on the Internet? Sure. But if the Internet is really like the world's largest library or bookstore, why would you expect otherwise? Pornography is available everywhere in our society: at your local convenience store, on cable TV -- and even, in the case of Madonna's book, -Sex-, at your local public library.

But the amount of pornography on the Internet is greatly overstated.

The vast majority of information you find there deals with news, sports, research, business, and not sex. Hard-core pornographic pictures are quite difficult to obtain without a credit card, which effectively means they are restricted to adult consumption.

You wouldn't know this, however, if your knowledge of the Internet was gleaned from newspaper headlines. Thanks to sensationalist media coverage ("Internet Plug Pulled on Kiddie-porn Sicko", "Porno Surfers Angry Over Censorship"), people who aren't computer-savvy have a picture of the Internet as a teeming cesspool where hard-core pictures fill your screen, unbidden, wherever you go.

The real picture is quite different. You don't get porn when you turn on your computer. You don't get porn when your Internet connection is established, or when you read your e-mail. In order to find pornography, you nearly always have to be explicitly looking for it.

The true state of affairs hasn't stopped pious moralists -- a curious alliance of religious fundamentalists and radical feminists -- from agitating for new laws restricting pornography on the Internet. But do we really need new laws? Of course not.

First, existing Canadian laws covering obscenity and child pornography already apply to the Internet, and there have already been a large number of charges laid and convictions obtained.

Second, regulating content on the Internet is like King Canute ordering the tide to come in. You can pass laws, but in the worst case porn sites will simply move to the US or other jurisdictions friendlier to free speech, and hence still be available to anyone with a computer or phone line.

An oft-repeated saying is, "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." For example, although the University of Waterloo continues to ban some sex newsgroups, these newsgroups are still easily available on its networks through other means.

Third, parents who are terrified that their kids might access Internet pornography can purchase a filter for their home computer. While software filters aren't perfect, they do offer some protection. For a variety of reasons, however, filters aren't suitable for computers in public libraries.

Finally, the vast majority of pornography constitutes protected speech under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All Canadians have the "freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication".

As US Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in overturning the CDA, "The Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The government may not ... interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion."

Jeffrey Shallit is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, and co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC), an organization devoted to preservation of civil liberties in cyberspace. You can visit EFC on the web at www.efc.ca

Copyright © 1999 by Jeffrey Shallit. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.