In mid March of 1998, a scientific break through occurred for the engineers at NASA. The space probe that they sent to Mars came back and, for the first time, contained readable and usable photographs of the planet’s landscape. Full of pride over their latest achievement, NASA posted the information on the Internet. This allowed astronomy enthusiasts, students, and other interested individuals to take a first hand look at the, never before seen, Martian Landscape. (NASA)
One month later, two men in New Jersey were arrested for posting inappropriate information on the Internet. They had been caught displaying pornographic images of children as young as seven years old. These men were promptly prosecuted and sentenced to jail time and over $600,000 worth of fines. (Business Week)
Most recently the Supreme Court had to decide whether it was fair or not for music fans to download their favorite songs free of any royalties to the artists. The program, design by two college students, is named Napster and its designed to allow the sharing of mp3 music files over the Internet. Currently, the program is still available and operating with much support from its users.
Support is something the Internet is not lacking. The examples listed are a fragment of the cases brought before our judicial system concerning the content on the information super highway. Not only are these examples pulled out of a pool of many, but also it’s also quite evident that the content is rather vast itself.Justice Stevens of the Supreme Court was quoted as saying “Internet content is as diverse as human thought.” Herb Brody from Technology Review describes the Net as “the ultimate intellectual jumblewhere brainy discussions of physics coexist with sophomoric essays, where sites that present satellite weather images are only a few mouse-clicks away from pornographic pictures” (Brody). The information available is vast because the World Wide Web is just that, worldwide. A media form this powerful that has wrapped itself around our planet has also made available communication resources never conceived of before. Because of the global nature of the Internet, it would be difficult for any group or company to restrict access to certain sites without outside help. Previously to any regulation, most sites containing “adult material” had warning labels on them to reveal it’s inappropriate material in order to deter under age viewers. The obvious problem is that there is no way to tell if those under age individuals would use their “go back” button.
This poses the most highly debated issue that makes up a great deal of the controversial Internet censorship legislation. That particular issue is pornography on the information superhighway. Moreover, will this initial censorship start a slide that can’t be stopped? Despite a statement made by Andrew Kantor, senior editor of Internet World, that pornography represents less then 1% of the Internet (Lloyd), there is a problem with coming across unwanted adult material while browsing. The fact is that downloadable pornographic images are in existence on the Internet and have become rather popular. “It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to find hard-core pornography on the Internetand since many youngsters can navigate circles around their elders, some adults are in near panic” (Diamond). There is no argument that any reasonable person would want to keep “adult” material out of the hands of children. The question is, by what means should our society accomplish these goals?
To address this issue it is necessary to examine the argument on three major battlefields: 1) legality, 2) technical issues, and 3) societal affects. Legally, this controversy revolves around the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the steps taken by pro-censor advocates to alter the amendment enough to stop the transmission of pornographic material. Those proposed alterations were compiled in the 1993 Communications Decency Act and presented in front of Congress. The Act as a whole was voted down, but a few of the articles pertaining to punishment for offenders of censorship laws already in place were sent for revision. These rewritten sections were put in front of President Clinton and passed on February 8th, 1996 as the CDA II. According to this bill, anyone posting content containing indecent language or content would serve a minimum of a one-year jail sentence. As defined in the text itself, this provision was designed “to designate it a crime knowingly to transmit obscenity or knowingly to send or display indecent material to children” (B.R.C.).
The CDA came under fire by anti-censor groups immediately after it was introduced. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced this bill as “an attempt by the government to restrict the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech” (ACLU). The ACLU also contends that since the bill restricts “indecent” material, the term indecent must be defined. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues, “It is clear that Congress could not constitutionally grant the FCC the power to tell The New Yorker not to print profane languageeven though children may come across a copyit is equally clear that Congress cannot grant the FCC authority to dictate how providers (of Internet service) like Netcom and CompuServe handle content that contains such language” (Citation). Cathy Cleaver, director of legal studies at the Family research Center a pro-censor activists, says that in every other form of media “we have government regulation of obscenity, yet we have not heard the screams of censorship in those areas.” She mentions further that the CDA attempts to do nothing more than “regulate obscenity and prohibit adults from giving it to children.” Democrat Senator James Exon of Nebraska and CDA sponsor comments that “it is necessary to make sure our children are safe from the negative aspects of technology” (B.R.C.). Adding to Senator Exon’s argument, Dr. Jennifer Lewis states, “It comes down to this: who is going to protect the children? If they are indeed our future, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure they grow up in a safe environment. This means an environment without pornography.
A specific section of the anti-porno CDA that attracted a great deal attention is the article that would make, not only the producers of the indecent material liable, but the service providers as well. The author of the CDA II, Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana believes that this will discourage pornography since it will make the providers “net police” (B.R.C.). The EFF responds by deeming this article, not only over-bearing, but would make those Internet service providers liable for doing their job. Mark Stumpf of Telecom Enterprise explains the situation is now set up so that if a user were to submit a message to a newsgroup that was offensive, the operator is subjected to a legal ‘catch-22’. If the operator censors the message, the user can claim a First Amendment violation, but if the operator puts the message on the newsgroup, the victim of the message could sue libel (Diamond).
The question of this issue’s legality is really whether or not the CDA is in violation of the First Amendment. Obviously, many anti-censor groups have their arguments based on the First Amendment platform. However, a great deal of pro-censor activist groups and individuals also feel that they are still within the boundaries of the constitution in the provisions they are proposing. They argue that the Bill of Rights was written in a different time and era, far different from today’s social standards. An Interesting article by a graduate student from The University of North Carolina read, “Do we really think Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin ever imagined that one day we would be dealing with an Internet, much less pornography?” She goes on saying, “as times change, we as a society must change with them” (Sutika)
That change in time and societal standards is what is causing a problem in not only defining the problem, but also how to fix it. The fact is that the Internet has seen a staggering increase of nearly 300% since 1996. (B.R.C.) This growth is unheard of in any form of media the modern world was seen thus far. The technology itself is changing at such a rate that is hard for industries and consumers to keep up. This accentuates the second major point of examining the censorship controversy, the technological aspect. The technical question surrounding this issue is whether or not it is physically possible.
In terms of the original CDA, where any “indecent” material was illegal, many Internet technicians saw this as a huge filtering process. According to Anthony Rutowski, executive director of the Internet Society, this would be “utterly impossible” because of the exponential growth of the “ultimate global engine.” When thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of items are added to the Internet daily, how would they keep track? He goes on saying, “On-line services could not survive under this enormous pressure, and would all be forced out of business. Giving the government the same responsibility would not change the results” (Internet Society).
The answer to this dilemma by anti-censors is the use of browser-based software that filters content for younger users. These programs function by scanning the pages for words or phrases that would be defined as “indecent” before they are viewed. There are, of coarse objections to the use of such technology by pro-censor advocates, though there are also arguments coming from anti-censors as well. Dr. Jennifer Lewis, a censorship activist says, “As advanced as this blocking technology may be, what technology is perfect? This controversy is over the biggest piece of technology we have seen in recent history” (Loyd). The anti-censor argument to filtering software is that they are concerned what it will filter exactly. Their complaint is based on the fact that the term “indecent” has yet to be defined. Unlike television and radio, the term “obscene” is used to designate illegal content. Frank Easterbrook, a judge in the Seventh U.S. Circuit, has strong opinions about banning pornography. He stated, “The state may not ordain preferred viewpoints in this way. The Constitution forbids the state to declare one perspective right and silence opponents” (Strossen).
The problem comes down to individual opinions on what is “indecent” and will this process only filter the necessary material. The Christian Coalition group in the United States are strong censorship proponents and realize that a complete banned of pornographic material will be almost impossible. They also believe these software filters are the next best thing to keeping unwanted material out of the hands of children. According to the Blue Ribbon Campaign, a leader in anti-censorship, under the CDA these measures would technically ban sites containing The Sistine Chapel, The Scarlet Letter, and Planned Parenthood, which doesn’t sit well with most anti-censors. (B.R.C.)
The Sistine Chapel brings up another portion of the argument of the technical ability to censor the Internet. The Sistine Chapel is an Italian treasure located in the Vatican City. If censorship laws were passed here in the U.S., they would in no way be applicable to international information transfers. These technical issues are hard to pin down because of the evolving nature of the technology itself. Since this problem is so new, it is difficult to reference former solutions and standards. Dean Harris, a writer for Wired magazine added “Every new medium that has ever been established was followed by similar arguments that you are hearing right now. The Internet is a new medium that cannot be held to same standards. It is not television and is not radio. It is different and must be treated that way” (Wired)
In treating the Internet in a different way, is the government failing to achieve the success that previous media restrictions have had? This question lays out the third point of debate on censoring pornography on the Internet: it’s social affects. The question being disputed is whether or not pornography is damaging to American society.
The government has already defined child pornography harmful to youths and therefore outlawed by the Supreme Court, and some feminist activists are pushing for the same ban of pornography of women. Feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have stated that pornography constitutes discrimination and violence towards women. In addition, Sut Jhalley’s video “Dreamworld” claims to clearly show the obvious link between negative images of women and violence, using examples from film and video. These feminists and pro-censors gained more ammunition for their fight when a University of Michigan student was arrested for a story on a newsgroup describing an encounter of a female student. His story was a “violent narrative of rape and torture” and later emailed a friend that “just thinking about it doesn’t do the trick anymore” (Diamond). It is in light of such incidents that lobbyists are pushing for a ban on pornography.
The problem anti-censors are having with this feminist argument is their definition of pornography, which is “any expression that demeans women.” Once again it is the vague terminology that is questioned. Censorship opponents are concerned that under this definition a great deal of educational and informative information would be removed from the Internet. Their argument also conjures up an interesting paradox within the feminist community. Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU and also a feminist, stated that the MacKinnon and Dworkin idea of pornography goes against what the feminist movement is supposed to represent. They make women out to be helpless and in need of protection from men who oppress them” (Strossen).
Addressing the claim that our societies openness towards sex is the reason for our problems with pregnancy and illegitimacy, anti-censors turn to a book entitled Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. In this book, the author gives multiple statistics opposing that claim, one of which being that one-third of pregnancies in colonial America were out of wedlock. Maria Pally, president of the Feminists for Free Expression said, “Blaming new-fangled technology for social ills is merely an effort to feel involved in the problem” (Internet Society).
The same antagonists of censoring the Internet are also concerned with the social ramification that such regulatory actions would have. Dean Harris of Wired Magazine posses the questions, “What is the future of society’s belief that everyone has the right to the freedom of speech? Does the censorship of the Internet represent the first steps towards setting standards on what is acceptable thinking and what is not? Do the benefits of being able to inform outweigh the dangers of antisocial groups having access to send their messages to our youths?” (Wired)
These argumentative topics, obviously pertaining to censorship of the Internet, also contain a continual underlying theme. That underlying theme is protection. Whether its protection of women, children, or society in general, nearly all of the pro-censor squabbles involve the sheltering of individuals from Internet content. It would seem that censorship lobbyists feel the need for a filter between the American public and mass media. This scenario in such context would give the impression of the suppression of Constitutional rights.
Looking at the dispute as a whole, relating the aforementioned 3 battlefields, the pro-censors are struggling to keep their heads above water with reoccurring cries of morality. Legally, the attempted amendments were described as unconstitutional and overbearing. Technically, the incomprehensible amount of transferred information would be nearly impossible to monitor, not to mention the infringement of international law. From a social stand point, the question boils down to whether or not inappropriate material in the media is to blame for the faults of the American public. That question has been answered time and time again in multiple courtrooms across the country, and that answer was a definitive NO.
Marc Rothenburg, a writer for the computer magazine Wired, summed up the situation quite nicely. He said, “The Internet doesn’t need thought police” and went on to say that “such legislation would turn the information super highway into a children’s reading room” (Internet Society). A children’s reading room is exactly where a child should be. If they are not and such controversial material is made available, then something besides the information is at blame. As Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, stated so succinctly, “too man parents are looking to the so-called village to care for their children instead of meeting this precious responsibility themselves” (Diamond). This statement is a wake up call to those who are blaming media for humanity’s discontent. It is blatantly obvious that we are responsible for our actions as individuals in the legal structure that surrounds our culture. It needs to become equally obvious that we are responsible as parents and as a community for the growth and development of the next generation.