Civil Liberties

Net Loss?


When it was trying to convince the Supreme Court to overturn the Communications Decency Act, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that filtering software offers parents an alternative means of shielding their kids from inappropriate material on the Internet. Now that the Court has unanimously overturned that law, the ACLU is arguing that extensive use of filtering software could be worse than government censorship.

At a conference on children and the Internet last week, ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt warned: "Linked together, the various schemes for rating and blocking could create a regime of private 'voluntary' censorship that puts what the Supreme Court called 'the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed' at great risk….For the average user…who does not know how to evade these controls, the Internet will become bland and homogenized."

Some of Steinhardt's concerns are reasonable. Government-mandated Internet ratings, for example, pose clear First Amendment problems. As the ACLU rightly notes, "A proposal that we rate online speech is no less offensive to the First Amendment than a proposal that publishers of books and magazines rate each and every article or story, or a proposal that everyone engaged in a street corner conversation rate his or her comments."

For precisely that reason, however, the Supreme Court would almost certainly reject any such requirement. And without government support, it's hard to see how the ACLU's nightmare vision of a "sterile" Internet where "only mainstream and commercial speech is accessible" could come to pass. This scenario, as laid out in a report entitled Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?, hinges on lackadaisical software developers, unresponsive service providers, and, most of all, clueless consumers.

As the report notes, "a number of [filtering] products have been shown to block access to a wide variety of information that many would consider appropriate for minors." A recent study by the Electronic Privacy Information Center found that Net Shepherd Family Search, which in March claimed to have rated 97 percent of English-language Web sites, inexplicably blocked out more than 99 percent of documents mentioning innocuous phrases like "American Red Cross," "Arbor Heights Elementary," and "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart." The filter did not seem to distinguish between such unobjectionable fare and potentially touchy material: Researching the "Constitution of the United States" was just as hard as getting information about "puberty."

But this is the sort of thing that people are apt to notice. Software that makes it impossible for Junior to do his homework is not likely to be a big hit with Mom and Dad, and companies that ignore such problems do so at their peril.

The ACLU also worries that filtering incorporated into popular browsers and search engines would render most of cyberspace invisible even to adults. But given a demand for unrestricted access to the Internet, some service providers will continue to supply it, just as some will try to serve a more squeamish crowd.

Indeed, the ACLU is not so bold as to suggest that all Internet software will simply deny users access to material that some consider offensive. The scariest possibility it raises is that filtering might be set as the default, which users would have to click a few buttons to change.

The ACLU's real fear, shared by others who see filtering software as a threat to free speech, seems to be that most Internet users simply won't miss safe sex information, gay and lesbian forums, and obscure political rants as long as they can get gardening tips, Dilbert cartoons, and the latest stock quotes. Worse, they might actually want to avoid stuff that offends or bores them.

"There's a danger that people will use [rating systems] not just to protect kids but to create virtual gated communities, where members can screen out all speech they don't think is 'appropriate,' " says Andrew L. Shapiro, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Center for the Internet and Society. "And democracy doesn't work if you can turn off anyone you don't want to hear from."

Social conservatives who seek to sanitize the Internet say looking at certain material threatens society; Shapiro says failing to look at certain material threatens society. This argument implies that it's our duty to visit every Web site, watch every TV program, buy every book, subscribe to every magazine, and read every newspaper article.

Congratulations. By finishing this column, you've helped preserve democracy. But you have a lot more work to do.