It Isn’t Censorship, It’s Something Else

1999: In the wake of the U.S. Senate’s unanimous passage of a measure to require ISP’s to provide filters to subscribers, much debate has sprung up. Charles Moore warned of the thin edge of the wedge that this measure walks (Thin Edge Of The Wedge: Why Internet Censorship Is A Bad Idea, MacTimes [no longer online]). Dan Knight disagreed (It Isn’t Censorship, Mac Musings), and Moore and John Farr (It Is Too Censorship!, Applelinks) responded to him. And more response has been coming, both in BBS’s and editorials.

The measure states that ISP’s with over 50,000 subscribers must provide internet filters to parents who want them. This is to be offered free or at cost within three years. The measure will only take effect if 75% of ISPs of that size don’t offer filters already.

Parents are to be given access to programs that will filter out unwanted material for their children. Simple. Makes sense.

Is This Censorship?

No. Not at all. Insofar as the First Amendment is concerned, forcing ISP’s to provide filtering programs to parents who want them is not censorship. The government is not restricting anything from being published or viewed, it is simply forcing ISPs to provide filters to parents who want them. The parents can discern whether they wish to limit the viewing of their children. Parents do not have to do this. This is a service option provided to parents, not a mandated implementation of filters by ISPs and the government.

Okay, so why the stink about the First Amendment? Chalk it up to overreaction. Some people are worried that the government’s role in filtering internet sites will lead to more government involvement in other First Amendment issues. Moore cites one instance where people are trying to change parts of the amendment, and he goes on to speak about various groups trying to stop this. He does not, however, point out why this applies to making filters available to parents. There seems to be little connection here. In fact, hearkening back to my Logic Fallacy lectures in philosophy, the phrases “Red Herring” and “Slippery Slope” come to mind.

So, this is a good thing then? No. Not really.

While it’s not censorship, it’s also not a step in the right direction. Let’s look at why this measure is being considered.

Filters give parents greater control over what the kids can view on the net. This sounds good. We can help parents raise their kids easier and better, can’t we?

Not exactly. Actually, it gives the filter companies greater control over what is viewed on the net. Parents can only choose whether to use the filter or not. They do not choose what sites are filtered. If a filter program doesn’t match up with what the parents do and do not want to be filtered, they cannot change the software.

Moore brings out a disconcerting point in his original editorial: Who decides what filters to offer, and how can we ascertain which filters will filter what we don’t want to see – and leave everything that we want to see? His lengthy explanation of some of the problems already in existence with these programs and their filtered and unfiltered sites is both informative and alarming. Can a parent trust the filter?

To top it off, the ISP will be required to offer one filter, not a vast array of programs. What if the parent doesn’t agree with the filtering policies of the supplied program but still wants filtering? Then the whole measure is pointless. The parent, who we are supposed to help, is frustrated. The parent must now purchase another filter.

Which brings up another point: Aren’t the filters already available to parents? We aren’t talking about creating some new standardized program, but simply forcing ISPs to adopt one version of a filter program. What stops a concerned parent from doing this now? Why can’t a parent who wants to utilize a filter simply go out and buy one? It’s not as easy as installing a filter that comes on your ISP’s CD-ROM, but it isn’t really hard.

And what about the cost? Are consumers really ready to pay for the rise in the cost of internet service? Let’s be real here, ISPs are going to have to buy these filters. They may get discounts for mass purchases, but they will have to pay something for them. Who do you think will ultimately absorb the cost? The consumer. If this passes, expect Internet rates to rise to some degree. The ISP may offer the filters for “free” but somewhere this cost will be factored in, and it may be factored in across the board for all subscribers, even those who do not wish to use the filter. Should they have to pay for this? On the other hand, is the cost too much if it helps children?

But will it really help children? Well, let’s look at why this measure is really being considered.

Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. This event sent lawmakers and politicians scrambling for some kind of resolution. Actually, it sent them looking for something they can show the voters before the next election year. They want legislation that will allow them to say to voters, “We did something about school violence.” This seems to be showpiece legislation. Who would vote against protecting our children? And while they are trying to figure it all out, we hear about a less deadly, but equally alarming, copycat shooting in Atlanta, Georgia.

I have no doubt that the people behind this legislation, and those that voted for it, have the best interest of kids at heart. However, I doubt if even the most naive Senator would think that this legislation alone would stop school shootings. It does make for good headlines, but this will not stop school violence. The cause of school shootings is not simply internet sites with details on building bombs and the like. It’s much more complicated than that. This is quick-fix legislation at its worst. Already, this and gun control measures seem to be what the media are pumping as just what is needed, but even the combination of these two measures won’t be the solution.

Okay, so maybe this isn’t the only thing they are planning to do and is just a first step in dealing with other factors, but is this a step worth taking?

As some point out, information is readily available for defeating filters. The parents may or may not have the kinds of filters they want available to them from their ISP. Parents already have filters available for purchase if they want them. And sadly, there is the possibility that once this is implemented and the public outcry over school violence goes away, this may be the only attempt at fixing a complicated problem.

Publisher’s note: Looking back, the current pattern of high school violence seems to have begun in December 1997 when Michael Carneal opened fire on a group of praying students at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three and injuring five more. It is absolutely heart-breaking to read the Wikipedia page listing school shootings in the United States, both before and after the Heath High School shooting. In 2018, the American people still have not figured out what to do about mass shootings, whether in schools or elsewhere.

No, this is a bad idea. Instead, parents should simply take precautions on their own.

Allow me to suggest some guidelines for children’s internet usage:

  • Never allow younger children to surf the net alone. Always be with them.
  • No child should have internet access in their room but should do their surfing in the family room with an adult present, if not participating.
  • Teach your kids right from wrong, what is appropriate viewing and what is not.

These put a lot of responsibility on adults, but they will undoubtedly be more effective than simply turning on a filter and leaving the room while a child explores the cyber-universe.

Further Reading

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