Censoring the Internet Won’t Protect Kids

WHAT COULD unite the PTA, Christian Coalition and American Library Association?The goal of protecting kids–from a law that supposedly protects them.

Just weeks ago, former President Bill Clinton signed the Child Internet Protection Act into law, requiring any library receiving federal funds to install filtering software on its Internet-access computers. Ostensibly to make computers “safe” for young children, the federal government has just fired the latest shot in the nation’s culture wars–a neutron bomb veering wildly off-course, destroying access to ideas while leaving members of Congress standing tall.

Both conservative and progressive groups are against this law; in fact, the commission that Congress created to examine mandatory filtering recommended against it, and Congress rejected it until it was slipped into a last-minute, billion-dollar budget bill. The American people and their kids are now stuck with it. That’s why an enormous lawsuit uniting ideological enemies will soon attempt to overturn it.

Why has such a broad coalition of groups–many of whom normally attack each other in their fund-raising letters–come out against this? Ironically, groups as antagonistic as the Eagle Forum and the ACLU raise virtually identical concerns: that filtering systems are being used to eliminate information that is safe, legitimate and vital to thoughtful democracy.

Tests prove that today’s best filtering software works badly, highlighting the crucial difference between complex human thinking and simplistic computer logic. Filters eliminate sites for breast cancer, Holocaust research and AIDS prevention. By focusing on words (which it can do) instead of meanings (which it can’t do), software blocks sites with words such as “dick” (such as Rep. Dick Armey), “high” (such as Washington High School) and “cum” (such as the Latin-filled site researching St. Augustine). Research into serious subjects (say, the causes of violence) is eliminated along with the subjects themselves (sites that glorify violence). Several dozen Congressional candidates’ sites were blocked in November.

Most troubling of all, filtering software blocks the sites of groups that criticize filtering software. Public-interest groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Peacefire and The Ethical Spectacle have all been banned by well-known filtering programs after publishing research exposing the faults in these products.

And how are citizens–which this law coerces into being software consumers–supposed to examine this system? We can’t. Filtering software companies will not tell you which sites are blocked. Sites just disappear from computer access. They won’t tell you exactly what criteria are used to block sites. They won’t even tell you why a site is blocked if you try to access a forbidden one.

In no other medium would Americans stand for this kind of censorship.

This law actually undermines the rights of children (remember, 17-year-olds won’t be allowed to see anything that 6-year-olds can’t). And libraries are now mandated to install software that will deny adults access to materials that are constitutionally protected–words and pictures that no court has ever deemed indecent, obscene or harmful to minors. While the law permits librarians to disable the software for adult use, they are required to somehow ascertain that adult patrons’ use of library computers is for “bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” Worse yet, librarian- cops aren’t required to disable the filters for such adults, only permitted. How many librarians will want to risk their jobs to do so, not to mention the incredible hassle? More than 90 percent of public libraries already have policies setting acceptable usages, developed over the years by local parents, library boards and professional librarians. This law undoes years of careful negotiations and compromise around the country and eliminates parental or community discretion.

It allows the federal government, with international corporations as their hired agent, to dictate what is and is not available in city and county libraries.

It is extraordinarily difficult to access porn in public libraries, and librarians say that practically no one does it. Even assuming that software can absolutely prevent your kid from doing it–which it can’t do reliably–eliminating the work of Martin Luther King and William F. Buckley is too dangerous a price for your kids to pay. Censorship warps young minds far more than pictures of sex, no matter how extreme.

Today, public policy about children is driven by fear: of violence, drugs, the media, sexuality. The American public has rolled back many of its rights in the name of protecting its children–a policy that has failed to deliver the safety we long for. We seem to believe that emotional security lies with just one more law, or one new invention. Or with a little more money. Correctly reading the public’s attitudes, politicians develop increasingly extreme “solutions” for problems that are moral, spiritual and existential. But life just doesn’t work that way.

This law’s solution–less information and less freedom–is neither effective nor morally acceptable. As we look at dark regimes around the globe, Americans criticize problem-solving that reduces information or freedom. American children deserve the same respect that we give kids in dictatorial nations that we’re trying to enlighten.

The problem is not what our children are exposed to–the problem is our fear. Censoring the Internet may feel like we’re doing something, but it won’t make our children safer. It will simply make all of us less free.