The Internet is a wonderful place of entertainment and education but like all places used by millions of people, it has some murky corners people would prefer children not to explore. In the physical world society as a whole conspires to protect children, but there are no social or physical constraints to Internet surfing. The Internet Censorship Bill of 1995, also known as the Exon/ Coats Communications Decency Act, has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. It would make it a criminal offense to make available to children anything that is indecent, or to send anything indecent with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass.
The goal of this bill as written (though not as stated by its proponents) is to try to make all public discourse on the Internet suitable for young children. The issue of whether is it necessary to have censorship on the Internet is being argued all over the world. There are numerous homepages on the World Wide Web discussing this issue or asking people to sign the petition to stop government censorship.
The Internet was originally a place for people to freely express their ideas worldwide. It is also one of America’s most valuable types of technology; scientists use email for quick and easy communication. They post their current scientific discoveries on the Usenet newsgroups so other scientists in the same field of study all over the world can know in minutes. Ordinary people use the Net for communication, expressing their opinions in the newsgroups, obtaining up-to-date information from the WWW, acquiring files by using FTP, etc.
Censorship would damage the atmosphere of the freedom to express ideas on the Internet; therefore, the government should not encourage censorship. In the Internet community, there is a large volume of technical terms. For this reason, it is first necessary to examine the terminology specific to the Internet. The Internet is a worldwide computer network.
The Net is frequently used in place of the Internet. In the words of Allison and Baxter, two experts on Internet Censorship at the Monash University, the Internet is comprised of various digital media subsuming many of the distinct roles of traditional media. Electronic mail (email), which is one component of the Internet, approximates person-to-person letters, memoranda, notes, and even phone calls. Sound and pictures are sometimes sent along with the text. Email is mainly for private communication. Electronic mailing lists are rather like club newsletters and readers have to contract-in or subscribe to a list. Another term that is often used is electronic news (e-news/Usenet), e-news is a broadcast, free to the Intern net medium. It has some properties of radio or television, particularly talk-back radio or television, in that the destination is indiscriminate.
The term FTP is also frequently used. File transfer protocol (FTP) started as an Internet archival and retrieval medium, somewhat analogous to traditional libraries. Files can be retrieved from distant computers using a traditional text-based interface. The worldwide web (WWW), which is another component of the Net, can be used to publish material that would traditionally appear in journals, magazines, posters, books, television, and even on film. The term UNIX, a widely heard computer term, is a multi-user, multitasking operating system originally developed by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, at AT&T Bell Laboratories, in 1969 for use on minicomputers (UNIX n.p.). To understand the background of the controversy, it is also necessary to give a brief history on the Internet.
The Internet was created about twenty years ago in an attempt to connect a U.S. Defense Department network called the ARPAnet and various other radio and satellite networks. The ARPAnet was an experimental network designed to support military research; in particular, research about how to build networks that could withstand partial outages (such as bomb attacks) and still function. At about the same time the Internet was corning into being, Ethernet local area networks (LANs) were developed. Most of these workstations came with Berkeley UNIX, which included IP (Internet Protocol) networking software. This created a new demand: rather than connecting to a single large timesharing computer per site, organizations wanted to connect the ARPAnet to their entire local network.
The demand keeps growing today. Now that most four-year colleges are connected to the Net, people are trying to get secondary and primary schools connected. People who have graduated from college where they have used the resources of the Net in classes, know what the Internet is good for, and talk their employers into connecting different corporations. All this activity points to continued growth, networking problems to solve, evolving technologies, and job security for networkers (Willmott 107). The Internet can also be compared to a church. In many ways the Internet is like a church: it has its council of elders, every member has an opinion about how things should work, and they can either take part or not. It’s the choice of the user.
The Internet has no president, chief operating officer, or Pope. The constituent networks may have presidents and CEOs, but that’s a different issue; there is no single authority figure for the Internet as a whole. As stated by Frances Hentoff, the staff writer for The Village Voice and the author of First Freedoms, on an info superhighway driven by individuals, there are no cops preventing users from downloading. Internet users can broadcast or express anything they want. The fact that the Net has no single authority figure sets forth a problem about what kind of materials could be available on the Net.
The U.S. government is now trying to pass bills to prevent misuse of the Net. The Internet Censorship Bill of 1995, which has already been discussed earlier, was introduced to the U.S. Congress. Under the Censorship Bill, a person breaks the law if he/she puts a purity test on a web page without making sure children cannot access the page. Also, if a person verbally assaults someone on IRC, he/she breaks the law If a university, where some students may be under 18 years old, which contains adult material, breaks the law. According to George Melloan from the Wall Street Journal, a censorship bill was passed by the Senate 84-16 in July and an anti-censorship bill was passed by the House 420-4 in August.
There are now four different sets of censorship and anticensorship language in the House and Semite versions of the Telecomm reform bill, which contradict each other and will have to be reconciled. In order to understand the need for the ever-growing body of legislation, it is important to explore the controversy, and the current problems involved with the Net as it exists must be introduced.
The problem that concerns most people is offensive material such as pornography. As pointed out by Allison and Baxter, Possible (offensive) topics are behavior (drugs… ), nudity, political/economic/social opinion, violence, racial/ethnic, religion, coarse language, sexual/gender orientation, [and] sexuality. Since the Internet is open to everyone, children are very easily exposed to such material. According to Allison and Baxter, the information provided on the Internet, particularly through the WWVV, ranges across train time-tables, university lecture notes, books, art exhibits, film promotions, the wisdom and ravings of individuals, and, yes, pornographic pictures.
Moreover, many high schools in the United States provide Internet access to students, which is very useful for looking up information, but if a student intends to look for inappropriate material, he/she is very likely to find such material simply by doing an Internet search. Another crucial Internet crime is the theft of credit card numbers.
Companies do business on the Net, and credit card numbers are stored on their servers; everyone with the necessary computer knowledge could hack in and obtain such databases for illegal purposes. To cite an instance, the most infamous computer terrorist, Kevin Mitnick, waived extradition and is now in jail in California, charged with computer fraud and illegal use of a telephone access device. The list of allegations against him includes theft of many files and documents, including twenty-thousand credit card numbers from Netcom On-Line Services, which provides thousandS with access to the Internet. Americans have to come up with a solution in order to keep children away from inappropriate material and to prevent misuse of the Net. One reaction to this inapplicability has been the Censor the Net approach (the censorship bill), which is being debated worldwide. First, the meaning of Censoring the Net must be explained. Simply, it is the banning of offensive material. To see if the government should censor the Net, it is imperative to list the advantages and disadvantages of the censor the Net approach. The advantage of government censorship is that ideally, children and teenagers could be kept away from unsuitable material. However, many experts have pointed out that government censorship is not possible.’ Howard Rheingold, the editor of the Whole World Review, observes that the ‘censor the Net’ approach is not just morally misguided.
It’s becoming technically and politically impossible. First, it is not fair to exclude the freedom and damage the atmosphere of freely expressing ideas just for the safety of children. Corn-Revere, an expert on Internet censorship at the Howgan Harson Law Firm, points out that the purpose of indecency regulation is to keep adult material from falling into the hands of kids. When he first introduced a similar bill last year, Senator Exon said he was concerned that the Information Superhighway was in danger of becoming an electronic ‘red light district’ and that he wanted to bar his granddaughter’s access to unsuitable information. It is clear that Senator Exon introduced the bill to prevent minors from viewing unsuitable material on the Net. In addition, Melendy, a computer science graduate student at Harvard University, questions that if the Internet makes democracy this accessible to the average citizen, is it any wonder Congress wants to censor it? Allison and Baxter assert that the most significant new properties of Internet media are the diversity of information sources and their ability to reach almost anywhere in the world. Authors range from major corporations such as IBM and Disney to school children. As predicted by Corn-Revere, At the very least, the law will force content providers to make access more difficult, which will affect all users, not just the young. Censoring the Net is technically and politically impossible; it will damage the atmosphere of freedom and free idea-expression on the Net; therefore, the government should not encourage censorship.
Most Internet users are enjoying their freedom of speech on the Net, which is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment of the United States. According to Corn-Reverse, it has been suggested that ‘online systems give people far more genuinely free speech and free press than ever before in human history. Rheingold predicts that Heavy-handed attempts to impose restrictions on the unruly but incredibly creative anarchy of the Net could kill the spirit of cooperative knowledge-sharing that makes the Net valuable to millions. The freedom of idea-expression is what makes the Internet important and enjoyable, and it should not be waived for any reason. Additionally, only a very small portion of the Net contains offensive material, most people do not use the Net for pornography. Caragata from Maclean’s magazine observes that it is pornography that stirs the most controversy. But while there is no doubt that pornography is popular, it amounts to a trickle compared with everything else available on the Net.
The Net is mostly being used for communication and information exchange, and only a tiny portion of the Net contains pornography and other offensive material. It must be understood that censoring the Net is technically impossible. According to Allison and Baxter, in principle, it is impossible to monitor all material being transmitted on the Internet. Considering the difficulties with international boundaries, a licensing system faces many obvious practical hurdles. As described by Allison and Baxter. Any good Computer Science graduate can create a completely secure encryption system for concealment purposes. The material can even be disguised, for example hidden ‘inside’ a perfectly innocuous picture. Therefore, if a person wants to publish offensive material, he/she can design a formula to change the material with respect to a key, and secretly tell other users what the key is. In this way, they can retrieve the same material and pass through government censorship. While people are concerned about Internet pornography, it should be recognized that pornography is sometimes legal; for example, pornography is legal in video and magazines. Therefore, it is inconsistent to ban the Internet equivalents.
According to Rheingold, Citizens should have the right to restrict the information flow into their homes. They should be able to exclude from their home any subject matter that they do not want their children to see. But sooner or later, their children will be exposed to everything from which they have shielded them, and then they will have left to deal with these shocking sights and sound in the moral fiber they helped them cultivate. The Internet is definitely not the only medium for teenagers to find inappropriate material. Even if the Net does not have any, teenagers could also be exposed to indecorous material in many other places.
For example, Allison and Baxter say that most authors using electronic media do not produce material that is any ‘worse’ than that available from newsagents, video shops, or mail-order sources. On that account, if the purpose of censoring is to prevent minors from being exposed to indecorous material, not only the Net has to be censored. Censoring the Net will only eliminate one single medium for minors to find irrelevant material. Government censorship is not the solution to the problem, and alternatives measures that have the same effects as censorship can be practiced. There are many alternative measures to government censorship that would prevent misuse of the Net and would have the same effects as censorship. According to Hentoff, there are ways to protect children without the Act’s intervention: blockage of certain areas, passwords, parental supervision.
And adults—under the protection of the First Amendment—can remain protected from government thought control. However, if the censorship bill is passed, the First Amendment may effectively be excluded from cyberspace. It is very important for parents to provide moral guidance for their children, and parents should have this responsibility. Moral guidance is the foremost long-term solution to the problem. Rheingold believes that this technological shock (pornography on the Net) to Americans’ moral codes means that in the future, Americans are going to have to teach their children well.
The only protection that has a chance of working is to give their sons and daughters moral grounding and some common sense. In America, minors can be exposed to sexual material in many media. Providing children with moral guidance is the foremost solution to the problem. However, at the same time that parents carry out moral guidance, Americans have to come out with some short-term approaches to solve the problem in a more efficient way as well. An alternative to government censorship is the technological fix, which would prevent misuse of the Net and would have the same effects as government censorship.
This involves the design of intelligent software to filter information. There is a rush to develop information filtering software and get it to market. One example of a technological fix is the SurfWatch software, as described by Allison and Baxter, SurfWatch is a breakthrough software product that helps parents deal with the flood of sexual material on the Internet. By allowing parents to be responsible for blocking what is being received at any individual computer, children and others have less chance of accidentally or deliberately being exposed to unwanted material. SurfWatch is the first major advance in providing a technical solution to a difficult issue created by the explosion of technology. SurfWatch strives to preserve Internet freedom by letting individuals choose what they see.
The SurfWatch vendor intends to provide monthly updates to cope with the fast-changing Internet. Also, commercial Internet service providers, such as America Online, allow parents to control what Internet relay chat (IRC) sessions are available to their children. Parental Control is a feature in many commercial Internet service providers, users can turn on the Parental Control function, and they will automatically be kept away from offensive words in IRC. In this way, children can be kept away from offensive material and adults can continue to enjoy their Internet freedom. Another technological fix is for parents and guardians to have a separate proxy server for their children’s web browsers.
A proxy server is a program that disallows the use of some specified Internet sites or Usenet newsgroups. The parents need to actively select sites their proxy server can access. Parental control tools are a very possible solution to the problem, as stated in the Communications. Decency Act Issues Page by the Center for Democracy and Technology, what will help parents control their children’s access to the Internet is Parental Control tools and features, such as those provided by several major online services and available as over-the-counter software.
Tools for controlling Internet access by children are widely available, and parents can already control their children’s access to the material on the Net. There are no computer programs to automatically and reliably classify material; only people can do it.
As a result, while practicing technological fixes, the classification of the contents of the material when posting is very important. Nowadays, most Internet users classify their postings with standard categories and leave signatures at the end of postings. According to Allison and Baxter, items are signed with a secure digital signature that can be traced to a real person, company, or organization. The strengths of the material are often classified as strong or weak, and attitudes of a given document towards a topic are often classified as advocates, discusses, deplores, or does not discuss.
Additionally, in order to reduce the effort of classifying many individual items, particularly in the case of FTP and WWW, classifications are often attached to directories and inherited by subdirectories and documents. In this way, readers can make informed decisions regarding access to Internet material, and the programming of intelligent software will be much easier: just by recognizing a small number of terms of classification. As a matter of fact, the classification of material has already been done on the Net for a period of time. Most Internet materials are well classified, and people will have an idea of what they are going to see beforehand. For instance, the articles in a particular Usenet newsgroup can be accurately predicted by the name of the group.
The combination of the installation of censoring software and the classification of material is a much better solution than government censorship. Hentoff mentions that the flexibility of interactive media…enables parents to control what content their kids have access to, and leaves the flow of information free for those adults who want it. This prevents unwanted material from reaching children and allows adults to continue enjoying their Internet freedom. The problem with the Net is that it is easy for minors to obtain inappropriate materials.
The American government came up with a proposal to censor the Net, but as proved earlier, the Censor the Net approach is both technically and politically impossible. The foremost solution to the problem is for parents to provide moral guidance for their children. At the same time, they are providing moral guidance for their children, Americans also need a short-term technical solutions. Intelligent censoring software and proxy servers can let parents disallow their children access to certain sites. In this way, parents can keep their children from the offensive materials on the Net.
Like other dilemmas and unanswered questions of the digital age, traditional approaches (government censorship) simply won’t work. Americans are going to have to accept less intrusive, probably more exotic solutions, such as providing intelligent software filters to those who want a version of Internet Lite.
For intelligent software and proxy servers to operate successfully, it is necessary to classify the information available on the Net and the classification of materials has already been done by Internet users for years. Parents can then censor the Net for their children, and adults can continue to enjoy their Internet freedom. This will provide the same effect as government censorship, but will not damage the atmosphere of free idea expression and freedom on the Net.
Moreover, indecorous materials are not only on the Net, minors can obtain such materials without accessing the Internet at all. Internet censorship is not the solution to keeping minors away from sexual material. The real and foremost solution to preventing minors from viewing sexual material is for parents to take a stronger role in their children’s viewing. This technological shock to Americans’ moral codes means that in the future, Americans are going to have to teach their children well. The only protection that has a chance of working is to give their sons and daughters moral grounding and some common sense.