The Hamilton Spectator
Thursday, July 9, 1998
page A10

Internet filters are necessary

If you're a parent of young children and fortunate enough to have a home computer and Internet access, some things are inevitable. The monthly bill is sometimes an unpleasant surprise. At some point, frustration sets in when you can't use the phone because someone is online.

You take pleasure from the joy and excitement you see reflected on your child's face when surfing uncovers some new wonder.

And you are worried and angry when your child finds inappropriate material, especially that which promotes hatred or features pornography.

You can't insulate your child completely, but you can reduce the risk through supervision and by using optional software programs called "net nannies". But there's a rub. According to some Canadian civil libertarians, if you use an Internet filtering program, you are guilty of restricting free speech.

That's right. Some self-appointed guardians of democracy insist Internet filtering programs are a bad thing, particularly when used by schools and libraries.

The libertarians argue that "net nannies" are evil because they throw out useful information along with pornography, and because they restrict the flow of information in cyberspace.

It's fortunate that this newspaper is equipped with its own filtering system, otherwise we'd be tempted to exclaim in colloquial, colourful terms what we think of this argument.

Internet filtering programs are far from perfect. In order to program them broadly enough to restrict access to pornography and hate literature, other subject areas that are related but not necessarily inappropriate are screened out.

It's also true that anyone with good working knowledge of search engines can work around the filtering process. This means that your average computer-literate kid can probably find a way to access pictures of naked people, one way or another.

So what if "net nannies" aren't perfect? Neither is the rating system used on motion pictures and television shows. Neither is the labelling system on compact discs and video games. Should we abandon these safety devices because they are imperfect?

That's not the biggest glitch in the free-speech argument. The fatal flaw is that Internet filters don't restrict the flow of information on the Internet. Pornographers, racists, and other purveyors of filth can continue to produce their garbage and make it available to millions of adult Internet users. All Internet filters do is make it a little easier for concerned parents to monitor their children as they travel cyberspace.

The argument about filters being inappropriate in public institutions like schools and libraries is plain silly. We wouldn't expect libraries to stock Playboy, So why should people using public terminals have access to Playboy online?

In the end, the argument that Internet filters impinge free speech is just goofy. This is the sort of thing that gives civil libertarianism a bad name.

Copyright © 1998 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.