The following is a term paper I wrote in my junior year of high school adressing the problems of Internet censorship. Bear in mind that it was written for a non-technical audience, so there is some explanation and simplification of terms that may seem unnecessary.

Internet Censorship
By Mike Nuss
May 10, 1999

In the past decade, there has been a great deal of controversy over the issue of online censorship. Because the Internet is a type of “new media,” government officials are now questioning whether and how the First Amendment applies. Our founding fathers, when they drafted the Bill of Rights, could not possibly have predicted that a medium such as the Internet would exist today. There is also the issue of child protection. Parents are worried that their children will “stumble onto” potentially inappropriate material on the Net, especially on the World Wide Web. But it is the parents’ jobs to monitor what their children are up to, not the government’s. Filtering software that blocks certain Web sites is now in use, but even that software has problems: it either censors too much or too little. Trying to censor a network as open as the Internet creates all sorts of trouble. It is a medium covered by the First and Fourth Amendments, and its users may exercise their own discretion; government censorship has no place online.

When the Bill of Rights was drafted, the First Amendment guaranteed free speech, and this applied to print media as well as spoken words. However, the Internet is a means of communication unlike any that existed at that time. A basic definition of the word “Internet” can be found in any dictionary. It is a communications network that connects computer networks around the world (“Internet”). Material posted on the Internet can travel across the world in minutes, and there are no guidelines for what may be said. Because of this, much of that material can be incorrect, misleading, or simply offensive.

The Internet uses many “protocols” for communication; the most relevant to this discussion are File Transfer Protocol, usually abbreviated FTP; Usenet, the worldwide network of newsgroups; and the most recent, HTTP, which powers the World Wide Web. FTP is a method of transferring files from one Internet site to another. Many Internet sites contain publicly accessible stores of information that can be obtained by this method, by logging in using the account name anonymous. These sites are known as “anonymous ftp servers” (“Matisse’s”). There are a wide variety of free “FTP clients,” programs used to login to FTP sites, available today. Anyone with a client and the FTP address (similar to a Web address but often identified by numbers instead of words, e.g. ftp://203.33.4.2) can login and download any file from the remote computer. These files can be anything from legitimate programs and documents to illegally copied software and pornography. There is no way to verify the identity or age of the user because of the use of anonymous account names as described in the definition above.

The next important protocol is Usenet. Usenet is a worldwide network of discussion groups, with messages circulated among hundreds of thousands of machines, consisting of over 10,000 discussion areas, called newsgroups (“Matisse’s”). Newsgroups are like message boards, and aside from the moderated groups, there is no control over what is posted. There are newsgroups for posting opinions about television shows, politics, movies, and basically anything people want to discuss. For example, the alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup contains thousands of posts related to the “Simpsons” television series. There is nothing inappropriate there, only debate on issues that relate to the show. But because there is little moderation among most of Usenet, misleading, dishonest, and sometimes hateful messages can be posted. The alt.anarchism.communist group is comprised of Communists, Marxists and more; however, there are also capitalists providing a counterpoint. In addition, some messages may be posted which contain information on building bombs and other dangerous devices, though it is much more common to find that kind of information on the Web. Furthermore, there are also newsgroups in which pornographic images and texts are posted, especially in the alt.binaries.erotica and alt.binaries.pictures.erotica hierarchies. And there are also the pirate software groups, such as the entire alt.warez hierarchy. Usenet is even more accessible than FTP for the purposes of downloading pornography and illegal software, because most Internet Service Providers provide Usenet accounts as part of the package, and there is no need to search for an anonymous FTP server when Usenet is freely accessible.

The last protocol relevant to this discussion is HTTP, which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. HTTP is used to deliver the World Wide Web, which over the past eight years has become what most people think of when they see the word “Internet.” It is also the source of much of the controversy over what should be allowed on the Internet because it is so much more prevalent than FTP and Usenet, and because of its hypertext nature. Hypertext refers to the underlined words scattered throughout Web pages, some of which link to other Web sites over which the owner of the page has no control. No matter how well maintained the starting point, the Web “surfer” may be sent to sites with information that is obsolete, full of half-truths, in poor taste, or just plain wrong. Many sites are maintained by volunteers, people without the resources or desire to validate their information, or individuals with strong bias on important issues (Gordon 170).

In 1995, Senators Jim Exon and Slade Gorton worked to draft a bill that came to be known as the Communications Decency Act, or CDA. The bill relied on an “indecency” standard (which was later deemed unconstitutional) for judgement of what was appropriate for the Internet and what was not. It would have prohibited the sending of “indecent” material directly to minors and posting material in such a way that minors could access it, e.g. Usenet and the World Wide Web (“CDT’s Analysis…”).

The Internet community was understandably resistant to such an act. On Feb. 8, 1996, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Reform bill, along with the CDA, into law, and for the following 48 hours, thousands of Web pages went black in protest (“Victory…”).

The main argument of the advocates of Internet censorship is that children can access material that may be considered “harmful.” Sexually explicit material is a main concern, however, many individuals and organized groups are also attempting to shield children from information on homosexuality, violence, drugs and alcohol, hate speech, and the environment (Symons 3). As described in the introductory paragraphs, there is indeed a plethora of inaccurate, opinionated, and even vulgar material readily accessible to children via the World Wide Web in particular. Because of the hypertext links leading in infinite directions and search engines that often provide material that isn’t quite what the child expected, it has become easy to find oneself on an R or X rated Web page without even trying.

However, even if a Web site is in poor taste, others’ opinions alone should not require that it is censored. The First Amendment gives people the right to say what they wish, and everyone has the freedom to access information. The defeat of the CDA proved that the government will be unsuccessful in trying to remove sites from the Internet; on the day it was signed into law, it was denounced by librarians, educators, and civil libertarians as unconstitutional (Symons 4). Instead, filtering software has been created, for the use of parents, teachers, and librarians, although the Supreme Court’s ruling on the CDA case did not settle the question of whether libraries could use filtering software without violating the First Amendment. The drafters of the CDA also apparently forgot that in 48 states, there are alreadyharmful to minorsstatutes, which make it a crime to distribute material that is harmful to minors, regardless of whether it is lawful for adults. In fact, one of the major flaws found by the Court was that the CDA prohibited speech that was indecent, yet failed to protect speech that may have had serious value for minors. It failed to address the First Amendment rights of minors, and they do have those rights (Ennis 10-12).

The problem with filtering software is that it is only software; it has no intelligence and only knows the "bad words" that have been programmed into it. For example, a student might wish to do research on breast cancer on the Internet. If she were using a school Internet connection, it’s likely that there will be a filter, either software-based or server-based, such as Bess, the proxy server used at Braintree High School. A logical place to search for information might be a search engine, so she would type in “breast cancer” and expect to see a list of sites on just that subject. Despite the bad reputation search engines have earned of failing to provide relevant information, a search using HotBot (www.hotbot.com), for example, yields 155,320 matches on the Web – all of which, on the first few pages at least, are related to breast cancer. But because she is using a filter on her school’s Internet connection, she will most likely get a message telling her that she is unable to view the list of results, because of improper content. The filter sees a word that’s been flagged as inappropriate for schoolchildren to see, and has blocked the student from doing any research on her topic. If she doesn’t have an Internet connection at home, she will be severely handicapped against students who either do have unfiltered connections in their homes or are researching subjects that the filter hasn’t prevented them from exploring.

Because filtering software can’t tell the difference between a medical reference to part of the human body and a search for X-rated pictures, it does more harm than good and has no place in public institutions such as libraries and schools. It prevents students, and library patrons, from fully utilizing the service to which they have access and can seriously handicap students with no other means of Internet access. This does not mean that users should be free to access pornography; on the contrary, libraries and schools have the right to determine what types of material may be accessed. They must create a policy specifically stating what types of material may not be accessed from their computers, e.g. pornography, and have each user sign an agreement not to access said material, understanding that he will lose his rights to use their computers if he violates the agreement. Teachers and library staff are almost always present when there are people accessing the Internet, so it should not be too difficult to monitor them. It would be quite difficult not to notice an inappropriate photo on the screen.

Pornography isn’t the only thing parents don’t want their children to see on the Internet. They are also concerned about their finding anarchist, Neo-Nazi, and all sorts of other propaganda, as well as information on computer “hacking” and building explosives. There are certainly hundreds of thousands of Web sites promoting illicit activities. For example, “The White Aryan Resistance” (www.resist.com) has set up a home page in which its members complain about immigration and the non-White population in the U. S. and speak of the White race as “Nature’s finest handiwork.” Parents would say that exposing their children to such propaganda is dangerous and will either traumatize them or potentially cause them to become hateful people and carry out the ideas they read about. It is true that children are impressionable. Finding information on building bombs and the like is startlingly easy: doing a search for “bomb building” with HotBot will provide the user with a link to the “Utopian Anarchist Party” Web site at www.overthrow.com, complete with instructions on manufacturing drugs, building pipe bombs, and creating chaos in school. “The School Stopper’s Textbook” alone contains a startling number of tactics that can be used to disrupt and deface public schools. Parents certainly don’t want this influencing their children, and school officials don’t either.

Even though some material may be dangerous for children to read, it is still covered by the First Amendment, and the government has no business trying to censor it. Even sites with radical ideas have freedom, just as the press does. In fact, the freedom of the press is such an integral part of a free society that it makes the country stronger. According to Brian Mulroney, assassinations, economic crashes and foreign affairs don’t have a major impact on life in a great democracy, and much of that comes from the remarkable achievements of a free press (Mulroney 107). It is not only the press that should be uncensored, however. It is also important that government documents and other information that the people have a right to see are posted online; 65 percent of Internet visitors to the White House stated that electronic access to information provides for a more direct view of the political process (Bictury 166). Even sites with radical ideas are not necessarily harmful. Regarding “The White Aryan Resistance”: It is true that its ideas would certainly be regarded as destructive and hateful. However, the site itself is basically harmless. All the views of this group, however opposed to them the reader may be, are presented logically, and it is up to the reader to decide whether or not to agree with the content. Judge Learned Hand explained that to truly have liberty, one must be willing to accept new ideas and coexist with those with differing opinions:

The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty seeks to understand the minds of other men and women. The spirit of liberty weighs their interests alongside its own, without bias. The spirit of liberty knows that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded. And the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2000 years ago, taught mankind a lesson that it has never quite learned and never quite forgotten – that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest.”

To have a free nation, everyone must be willing to accept that there are ideas differing from his or her own. Adults’ ability to read questionable material is not really debatable because of the First Amendment. However, parents say that their children’s minds are not yet developed enough to recognize the difference between right and wrong, and therefore should not be exposed to hateful messages, or anything else the parent considers inappropriate. Well, who could argue with that? The parents certainly have the right to decide what their children may see. It’s not just their right however; it’s also their responsibility. Parents must take an active role in paying attention to what their children are looking at on the computer. The television acting as a baby-sitter has now given way to the computer performing that same task, and there is much more damaging material available by computer than by television alone. For this reason, parents shouldn’t expect nor want the government to decide what is acceptable viewing for their children. The appropriateness of content can only be decided effectively by a group of people, and not by the government. As Judge Learned Hand said, “Right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of the multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection” (Sussman 10). The government is simply not equipped to make a decision that prevents million from accessing information. Which means that it is up to the parents to take control. For the very young, parents should surf the Web with them, so that they can be introduced gradually to the culture of the Internet and shielded from material that their parents don’t want them to see. But as children enter their teen years, they naturally desire and need privacy. In this case, their parents should let them roam about the Internet freely, and hope that they have done their job well in raising them. It is possible to check the history files of a Web browser, but to do so will undoubtedly make the teen feel that he or she isn’t trusted, and besides, history files can be erased. The bottom line is that the parents must take responsibility for what their children access online, not the government.

Proponents of Internet censorship also point out the potential dangers children face while online. Sexual predators use Internet chat rooms to entice victims, often with traumatic results. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a 39-year-old man living in Florida was able to lure 14 and 15-year-old girls from all over the East Coast to hotel rooms where he sexually assaulted them. The New York Daily News told the story of how a 14-year-old boy was repeatedly raped by an older man he met on America Online in a chat room. The government apparently thought that filtering software could solve this problem; Senator McCain wrote a report on a bill that would require filtering systems in libraries and schools (McCain 2).

While it sounds logical, detailing the benefits of filtering and why it is not unconstitutional, this specious report fails to address how filtering Web sites can prevent the tragedies described above from occurring. There’s a good reason for that: it can’t. This is yet another case where the parents must take responsibility for what their children do online. Most of the cases where children have been lured into dangerous traps have occurred on America Online, but it is not necessarily AOL’s fault. This service has made it extremely easy for parents to set controls on what their children may do online, including banning them from all chat rooms.

The government has tried to regulate the Internet, and it has failed. The short-lived CDA was struck down as unconstitutional and any further efforts will undoubtedly meet the same fate. Filtering software was a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t do its job well. Filters can easily block students out of websites that they need to access for research simply because they contain words that have been flagged as inappropriate. Web sites with questionable content cannot be removed from the Internet because their creators are protected under the First Amendment. It is the job of the parents to monitor what their children are doing on the Internet, and steer them clear of sites that they do not wish them to see. And the technology cannot be blamed for the acts of violence that have befallen some unfortunate youths; it is the fault of pedophiles, who existed long before the Internet, and the fault of uninformed parents. If parents take the time to learn how to control what their children have access to before giving it to them, they will be much safer. In the end, it is a question of whether the First Amendment applies to the Internet. And of course it does, guaranteeing free and unfettered speech, offline and online.


References

Bictury, Sara. “Town Hall On-Line.” Media & Democracy. Edited by Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998. p. 166.

CDT’s Analysis of the Latest Communications Decency Act.” Online. Internet. 21 Apr 1999. http://www.cdt.org/policy/freespeech/12_21.cdaanal.html.

Ennis, Bruce. “Remarks.” Children and the Internet: Guidelines for Developing Public Library Policy. American Library Association, 1998. pp. 10-12.

Gordon, Andrew C. “Journalism and the Internet.” Media & Democracy. Edited by Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998. p. 170.

Internet.” WWWebster Dictionary. Online. Internet. 21 Apr. 1999. http://www.m-w.com.

Matisse’s Glossary of Internet Terms.” Online. Internet. 21 Apr 1999. http://www.matisse.net/files/glossary.html.

McCain, John. Internet Filtering Systems Report of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1998. p. 3.

Mulroney, Brian. “Images that Injure.” Media & Democracy. Edited by Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998. pp. 107, 110

Sussman, Leonard R. “Exit the censor, enter the regulator.” New Communication Technologies: a Challenge for Press Freedom. Edited by Colin Sparks. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1991. p. 10.

Symons, Ann K. “Introduction and Beyond.” Children and the Internet: Guidelines for Developing Public Library Policy. American Library Association, 1998. pp. 3-4.

Victory in the CDA Case!” Online. Internet. 8 May 1999. http://www.cdt.org/cda.html.

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