The McMaster Silhouette
Thursday, April 4, 1996

Mac prof stirs up international debate

by Josh Bongard,

One Mac prof's April Fool's joke has raised some rather serious issues.

David Jones, professor of computer science, wrote a phony news release hailing the introduction of a V-chip for library books.

The V-chip is a computer chip designed for installation in televisions, which would help parents regulate the types of programming their children are exposed to. Jones is also president of the lobbying group Electronic Frontier Canada, which strongly opposes the V-chip.

Keith Spicer, chair of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, announced earlier this year that cable broadcasters will be required to assign a violence rating to all programming, with sports, news and editorial pieces being exempt.

Jones said he wrote the news release as a satire on the method by which the project is being implemented.

"[Spicer] took [the V-chip implementation] from a logical debate to a purely emotional debate", said Jones.

"Spicer's approach dismisses logical debate, and so far it's worked. What my spoof did was to approach the issue from the same arena, humour. Humour appeals to emotions, not logic", he added.

Jones' spoof outlined a V-chip for books, which in conjunction with bar codes would make it possible to rank books based on sex, violence, drug use, and "alternative lifestyles".

Jones inserted the news release into a discussion group on the Internet which is concerned with Spicer's project. However, according to Jones, a few members of the group did not instantly realize the "release" was a joke, and spread it to other discussion groups.

As the press release spread throughout the continent, many librarians felt the idea was a little bit too Orwellian and phoned Karen Adams, president of the Canadian Library Association.

Adams, who wasn't aware of the gag at first, wasn't upset.

"If you read it carefully you could tell it was a joke", said Adams. "It's a testimonial to the fact that people just read the headlines."

The incident was reported in the Ottawa Citizen, the Halifax Daily News, Maclean's magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. Ross Kerber, reporter for the Journal, mentioned in his article he had been initially fooled by the fake press release.

Jones said he had never expected the press release to raise as many concerns as it did.

"It's actually kind of reassuring so many librarians we depend on are poised on the panic button when it comes to censorship", Jones said.

"None of this was intentional", Jones added, "but in a small way I think it's reopened the discussion [regarding the V-chip and censorship]."

Copyright © 1996 by the Josh Bongard. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.