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It Isn't Censorship

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- 18 May 1999 - Tip Jar

Charles W. Moore objects to the United States government requiring larger ISPs to provide content filtering for free or at cost (see Thin Edge Of The Wedge: Why Internet Censorship Is A Bad Idea).

Although I agree with him in general that censorship is a bad thing, I disagree on his interpretation of this legislation.

As a parent, I have an obligation to raise my children without exposing them to undue risk. So we try to keep weapons out of school, cigarette smoke off school property, and drug dealers out of the school's vicinity.

And we create strong disincentives for selling alcohol, cigarettes, or "adult" magazines to minors. We're talking fines and jail time.

As parents, we try to bring up moral children. We hope our training will keep them from lying, stealing, and picking on people who are different. By what we allow them to do and what we try to keep them from doing, we attempt to shape them into responsible members of society.

Blocking our children's access to certain portions of the internet falls within our responsibilities as parents. Were we remiss in this area, the legal system could judge us unfit parents and possibly remove our children from our home.

As I understand it, the legislation doesn't require parents to filter content. However, it does require ISPs to make filtering available to those who want it.

One analogy is the problem with 1-900 phone numbers. Some business phones are set to block all access to such numbers, which blocks both phone sex and customer support. But for the home users, the phone company also offers 900-line blocking service.

Likewise, it's not unusual for a computer network to filter out certain domains. My mail server does that to fight spam. Some businesses do it to keep employees off the sex channels. This is somewhat analogous to call blocking - keeping that annoying salesman, rude acquaintance, or bothersome relative from calling you at home.

As parents, we have the option of buying filtering software, installing it on our personal computers, and learning how to set it up. Then we have to trust that the software will indeed do what it promises - and that timely updates will keep it working as designed.

The bill passed by the U.S. Senate eliminates the need for the end user to buy filtering software. Instead, they will be able to create profiles with their ISP: this user can go anywhere, but this user should be blocked from certain types of sites - which the parent would then define.

In response to this, Moore writes:

It is unacceptable for governments, or parents, to demand that ISPs act as surrogate nannies for their unsupervised children, at everyone else's expense, and the desirability of third-party Internet censorship is highly questionable in any case.

As a parent and internet user, I respectfully disagree. Nobody asks the ISPs to act as surrogate nannies. Instead, we ask them to follow our guidelines in determining which sites are inappropriate for or children.

Nor are ISPs told they must provide the service for free. Instead, they are allowed to pass the cost along to those who use the filtering.

But most of all, I disagree with Moore on one key work:

censorship

It's a highly charged word, one which we almost automatically react against.

But what is censorship?

When a book, song, or movie cannot be legally published, that is censorship.

But when a publication cannot be sold in a certain community, is that censorship?

Or when a movie bears the NC-17 rating to keep out minors, is that censorship?

Or when a certain store or chain declines to carry a type of magazine, is that censorship?

Or when a library chooses not to buy a certain volume, is that censorship?

Or when someone elects not to buy a book, CD, or video because of its content, is that censorship?

Here in the States we have freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This applies to books, magazines, recorded music, movies, and the internet.

But with freedom comes responsibility. Anyone who cries, "Fire!" in a crowded building is subject to prosecution - unless there is a fire.

Because the internet is international, unregulated, and ubiquitous, there is material "out there" that is immoral, illegal, unethical, or simply dangerous. Adults usually know what areas to avoid, although some end up addicted to online sex.

Children are in a far more vulnerable position. Parents and our governments have a vested interest in protecting them from harmful influences, whether that be parents who don't buckle children in the car or child pornographers.

Working together, federal legislation, internet service providers, and parents can make web access safer for our children.

I believe we have an obligation to do so - as long as it is the parents who choose what is and is not appropriate for their children.

Still, there are a lot of other issue involved here, issues going to the heart of the Bill of Rights. Whether you agree with Moore on some issues or not, Thin Edge Of The Wedge: Why Internet Censorship Is A Bad Idea it provocative reading.

Further Reading

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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