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Internet Censorship Essay, Research Paper

?There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance,? the German poet Goethe stated. Ignorance is alarming, no matter what good intentions it is hidden behind. Today, an ignorance of the issue of Internet censorship has left a threat to free speech, our constitutional right. Even worse, many of our lawmakers are the ones feeding this fire. The first major law concerning the matter was the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. The CDA made it a crime to transmit indecent material over the Internet. The decision resulted in an immediate outcry from users, industry experts, and civil liberties groups. In 1997, the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional because it violated first amendment rights. However, there are still many proponents of Internet Censorship. Public libraries in Austin, Boston and elsewhere have decided to install blocking software on computers connected to the Internet. Many companies are now producing Internet filtration software, or censorware. These attempts are both haphazard and unlawful. Internet censorship is unconstitutional and unrealistic, the Internet ought to be left unfiltered.

The primary reason Internet censorship is wrong is simply because censorship is in direct violation of the First Amendment. This point is first demonstrated by a 1982 case, Island Trees Board of Education v. Pico. The local school board ordered removal from the school library books including Bernard Malamud?s The Fixer and Richard Wright?s Black Boy. The Supreme Court held that:

Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas?. In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ?prescrive what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.? Such purposes stand inescapably condemned by our precedents. (Wallace, p.2)

Although Pico dealt expressively with the removal of books, it governs the use of blocking web sites as well for two reasons. First, blocking a web site is analogous to removing a book. Second, Pico strongly imples that even the acquisition of books must be carried out according to certain standards imposed by the First Amendment.

Another example of how Internet censorship opposes the Constitution is shown by the contradiction between the freedom of expression in printed word and online. Jake Baker, a student at the University of Michigan, was the author of a chronicle involving him and a fried who, in this fictitious tale, hold a woman captive and abuse her with clamps, glue, knives etc. Bret Easton Ellis writes a novel, American Psycho, in which his character holds a woman captive, sprays her with Mace, and decapitates her. What was the difference between the two authors? Jake baker uploaded his stories to a site on the Internet, and shortly thereafter he was arrested for transmitting ?interstate communication containing a threat to kidnap.? Bret Easton Ellis is awarded a bestseller and critical acclaim for his work. (Spindola, p.4) Aside from the legal issues concerning Internet filtering, there are a number of problems with the effectiveness of the filters as well.

The size of the Internet poses two major problems for a program trying to block web pages. As of May 20, 2000, the web has roughly 1,980,000,000 pages, and in the last 24 hours, the web has added 4,020,000 new pages and 905,000 images. (Magrove, 2000, p.1) There is no probable way for one of these filtering programs to evaluate a significant portion of the web, let alone all of it. Even the search engines, who run on much more powerful computers than any of the censorware companies have, cannot cover more than a sixth of the Internet. AltaVista, one of the largest search engines, indexes 140,000,000 of the 1,980,000,000 pages that exist. (Lawrence, p.108) What does this mean for consumers of censorware? That the Internet is blocked inadequately, censorware does not effectively block the majority of the Internet. Most of the companies also claim that every page they have blocked is reviewed by a human. ?All sites that are restricted are looked at by a member of Cyber Patrol’s Internet research team, composed of parents and teachers,? a representative from Cyber Patrol wrote.(List Server, p.1) The statement, however, is a blatant lie. The censorware company with the most web site reviewers (N2H3, makers of Bess), employs 15 full-time and 58 part-time workers, while a company would need 25,500 reviewers workers every day Monday through Sunday to keep up with the pace of the Internet. (Censorware Project, p.6) Computers are no substitute for a human reviewer. Words are often seen out of context, resulted in decent sites that are accidentally blocked. A good example of this is provided by Smartfilter, a blocking program manufactured by the Secure Computing Corporation. Smartfilter banned a page at Florida State University, http://mailer.fsu.edu/~wwager/index_public.html, under its gambling category.(Magrove, p.7) The computer read the word ?wager? in the address, and automatically blocked the site. MapleSoccer.org, the web site of a youth soccer league, was blocked because of a page that listed the teams in categories ?Boys under 12?, ?Boys under 14?, etc. These inconsistencies in Internet filtering programs undermine the purpose of the program, and make the filter do more harm than good. Blocking decent and useful sites can prevent many from finding important information, the purpose of the Internet in the first place. When you couple this with the fact that all ?indecent? sites are not blocked, it is easy to see that the bad outweighs the good by a far margin.

Censorware companies keep their list of banned sites locked up very safely, and for good reason. They don?t want people to be able to see the aforementioned accidental blockings, as well as sites blocked with far more subjective purposes in mind. The companies making software blocking software aren?t responsible to anyone, and there is no law governing Internet censorship. The result is that many web sites are blocked purely because the software companies have something against them, no matter how morally upright the content is. Cyber Patrol blocks the Envirolink animal rights web site, because the manufacturer determined that Envirolink?s descriptions of animal testing in laboratories were inappropriate for children.(Harding, p.3) Cybersitter blocked the TIME Magazine site as a result of an article that criticized Cybersitter?s blocking policies. TIME wrote a follow-up article after learning their site was blocked, stating that web filtering ?may be a cure worse than the disease,? and that ?Cypersitter has a propensity to block sites like the National Organization for Women and sites discussing gay politics.? Deliberately blocking sites for reasons other than ?indecent? content is immoral, especially when one of the programs is used in a library. A third party should not have any say in what pages a customer of the library can view. Referring again to the Pico case, this would be the equivalent of a private company dictating what books are allowed in the library, and making the decisions purely based on self-interest. For any user, the censorware programs limit the amount of viewpoints and information one can access, which is a main principles of the Internet, that a person can find a wide range and different perspectives to help guide them to a conclusion.

Internet censorship advocates point to the need to protect children, but lay the responsibility in the wrong hands. Parents have the true responsibility for what their children do online. By educating children about the good and the bad side of the Internet, and supervising a child?s use of the computer to a certain extent, parents can make online indecency a non-issue. A father says it best, ?I?ve talked to my children about the sanctity and risks of sex; there?s nothing on the web that will affect them beyond momentary disgust. Censorship, no matter who it is imposed by, always shuts out more than pornography and hate speech. It also shuts out reality.? (Oram, 1998, p.3) Simple things like placing the computer in the family room to do some occasional ?shoulder surfing?, and informing children not to give out any personal information can have more power than the blocking filters. Momentary disgust will be the harshest repercussion of any ill encounter on the Net if a good parent-child relationship is fostered on the issue. The problem is played up more than what exists in reality.

The problem of minors reading things on the Internet is the backbone of censorware companies claims. But what is the likelihood of accessing something you did not want to see on the Internet. Has it ever happened to you? Not likely. The most conceivable thing that would happen is for the child to view an advertisement for a obscene site, but the user would have to click on the ad before they would see anything particularly inappropriate. I personally, have never had a porn site ?pop-up? on me unexpectedly, or run into one by accident. The exaggeration of the problem is merely an attempt to make money; nothing more, nothing less.

Censorship is not something Americans value, yet over and over exceptions are made for the Internet. No matter what type of media is used, censorship is illegal. Furthermore, the censorship software that millions of Americans use is biased, faulty, and incomplete. We must realize these facts through action, and not let the plague of censorship further affect the children of our country. Our strength is in our freedom, so let us hold it fast.


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