” Internet Rating Systems: Censors by Default” The Internet, first designed for the military and the scientific community, has grown larger and faster than anyone could have ever expected. Now being a potpourri of information, from business to entertainment, the Internet is quickly gaining respect as a useful and important tool in thousands of applications, both globally and domestically. But, the growth that the Internet has seen in the last few years has come with some growing pains. Reports of harmful information reaching children are always painful to hear; who wouldn’t feel for a mother who lost a child to a pipe bomb that was built from instructions on the Internet? But the greatest pain thus far has been the issue of accessibility of pornography on the Internet, and it has many parents concerned. But is it as big of a threat as the media would like us to think, or has it been a bit exaggerated? On July 3, 1995, Time Magazine published a story called “On a screen near you: Cyberporn.” This article discussed the types of pornography that could be found on the Internet such as, Pedophilia, S and M, urination, defecation, bestiality, and everything else in between. In Julia Wilkins’ Humanist article, she states that the Time magazine article was based on a George Town University undergraduate student’s law journal paper that claimed that 83.5 percent of the pictures on the Internet were pornographic. Unfortunately, after Time published the article, it was discovered that the paper’s research was found to be wrong. So wrong in fact that Time retracted the figure, which really was less then 1 percent, yet the damage had already been done (1).
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She also claimed that the article, which was the first of its kind, was responsible for sparking what can be compared to a Salem witch-hunt or the McCarthy hearings. In effect setting off many child protection and religious groups who were being fueled more by inaccurate data and a “Moral Panic ” type attitude, than the facts (1).
With government officials being pressured from these groups, they declared war and the “anti-Internet” campaign had begun.
The first attack came from Sen. Jim Exxon (D-Nebraska) in March 1995. He introduced legislation that made material considered “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent” against the law (qtd. in Lead-up).
This legislation made its way to the Telecommunication Reform Package, and ultimately to the Communication Decency Act (CDA).
The Telecommunication Act, which includes the CDA was passed by the senate, the house, and signed by President Clinton on February 8, 1995. (Lead-up) The same day the CDA was signed, the opposition, led by the ACLU and other advocacy groups, along with industry leaders like AOL and Microsoft, filed suit in a Philadelphia District Court “challenging the constitutionality of the new law” (Kramer, qtd. in Lead-up).
The ACLU v. Reno landmark case found that CDA violated the first amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. Then on June 26, 1997, in the U.S. Supreme Court, in the appeal, Reno v. ACLU, the justices reaffirmed that the CDA was unconstitutional and that it was a cure worse than the disease (Lead-up).
By a vote of 7-2, the CDA and the “Moral Panic” went away (Wilkins).
Or did it? Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Communication Decency Act was a violation of the first amendment and that “the Internet is entitled to the highest level of free speech protection” , there is a new less obvious threat to the freedom of speech (qtd. in Beeson).
... for keeping children away from indecent material on the Internet. Software systems which allow parental control of Internet material are ... Available: web [Report on the child pornography/Internet scandal in Texas. ] Mattos, Jenifer. 'The CDA Before the Court.' Time (19 ... ACLU and a breadth of companies representing the computer industry such as Microsoft and America Online, the CIEC challenged the CDA ...
According to ACLU, the new threat is hiding in the smoke screen of Internet rating systems (Beeson 2).
These types of rating systems have been around for awhile, designed as a tool to protect children from inappropriate material and help businesses keep their Internet users focused. While benign on the surface, the ACLU warns the long-term ramification may in fact destroy the Internet and the rights that come with it. Parental level blocking programs are not only the most effective way to keep children from inappropriate information on the Internet, but unlike labeling systems, provide the rest of us with the freedom of information we deserve. The protection of children is the focus of most of the issues surrounding the Net today. Protection from pornography seems to be the main focus, but there are others, such as information on bomb making or protection from cults and sexual predators. All these are examples of why parents want to block or protect their children from this information. All sides agree that parents should have tools to protect their children from these threats. There is software, developed and maintained by private companies that do not rely on a global system for its blocking mechanism, that a parent can buy and use in their home to block sites that are deemed inappropriate for children (Krantz 1).
Although these types of “third party ” software do a good job in keeping undesirable information away from children, the ACLU warns that many of them don’t block sites that have not been rated, and are known to block some sites that wouldn’t be considered inappropriate for children (Beeson 10).
A “buyer beware” attitude has been taken by ACLU in regards to these end user packages. Likewise, the ACLU warns against the new direction the industry is taking with a global labeling type systems and states “many of the new rating schemes pose far greater free speech concerns than do end-user software programs” (qtd. in Beeson 10).
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“The Platform for Internet Content Selection”(PICS) is the newest labeling scheme that is being embraced by Internet industry leaders. This is not a filter, but a labeling standard for creating filtering or blocking tools. In theory, it’s designed to be a labeling mechanism for web sites that then can be used by end user software (Webber 1).
However, because the PICS system has many technological holes, it is getting opposition from many advocacy groups including the ACLU, ALA and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
In early December 1997, the Internet industry leaders, along with the White House, armed with a goal to standardize an Internet rating scheme, held a summit about the issue of “virtually” protecting children. This was an attempt at collectively finding middle ground for protecting children from Internet porn. But, Bruce Handy, a reporter for Time describes government officials pleading with the private sector to develop a system that works, and the industry leaders looking for the potential profit that a “clean and well-lighted ” Internet can bring (Handy 2).
Bringing big business and the government together to discuss the strategies of the subject was an image booster for both parties, but little else. And according to Berry Streinhardt of the ACLU, one of the few advocacy groups invited, “This had seemed more like a trade show than a summit” (qtd. in Handy).
It ended up producing more questions than answers. One of the only questions answersed by the so called summit proved to many free speech advocacy groups that their collation with big business was crumbling and the new battle against rating systems would be fought alone. Sold out by big businesses that fought gallantly beside the ACLU and in their fight against the CDA, are now seeing dollar signs that a “Homogenized” web could bring (Beeson 8).
But, the free speech groups have some ammunition on their side, the first amendment for one and the technological shortcomings of the PICS system second. One such technological shortcoming questions how would a labeling system keep up with the ever-changing web. With new web content moving through cyberspace constantly, how can all that content be labeled? Voluntary self-labeling is the answer according to the Clinton administration (Weber 1).
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But that brings up many of it’s own questions. The first question is: What happens if the webmaster -the person who creates the web site- decides not to volunteer? The answer is simple. The site is blocked, because the PICS system must, by default, block unlabeled sites in order to be effective; so much for voluntary (Webber 2).
Another question is: If this “voluntary” system is truly voluntary what incentive would a webmaster have to label his site? Or what would keep the webmaster from mislabeling? According to the ACLU, eventually a law would, because “without a penalty system for misrating, the entire concept of a self-rating system breaks down.” They also state that “despite all good intentions?would lead to heavy handed government censorship ” (Beeson 8).
This would convince most, that a labeling system is inappropriate for the Internet, but there are many more holes in the PICS scheme. Another hole in the PICS labeling system is the cost and the man hours required to do such a task. It probably wouldn’t hurt empires like CNN or Microsoft to spend the man hours to label their entire web presence, but the ACLU states non-profit organizations would be impacted greatly by burdens that rating large sites would require (Beeson 6).
We all know what would happen if organizations decided not to label themselves. So what choice would they have? They would have no choice and that is wrong. It’s wrong because the cost and burden of such a task “would effectively shut most noncommercial speakers out of the Internet marketplace” (Beeson 6).
Along the same lines the, the U.S. Supreme Court In the landmark case, Reno v. ACLU, in regards to use age verification for internet forums, the Justices stated that it would be “prohibitively expensive” (qtd. in Beeson 6).
And according to the ACLU this ruling would also apply to self-rating for some organizations (Beeson 6).
Even if pro-rates get past the shortcomings of government intervention and justify the costs to the self-rating proposals what they sometimes forget is that the Internet is global and knows no boundaries.
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Lets face it, the rest of the world gets a lot closer on the Internet. For the first time in the history of man, there is a nearly global system of communication. Ever wondered what a Russians’ day is like? Just ask and you’ll probably get more answers than you originally wanted. Or look out the window onto a street in Cairo and see what’s happening there at that moment. These are some impractical examples of what global communication can do. The practical ones for both business and entertainment are obvious. But, rating this vast virtuosity presents an equally vast amount of problems, both technically and practically. According to the ACLU, more than half of the information on the Net is from outside of the U.S. and they warn that a rating system would put up borders around the U.S., making us what they call “Fortress America” (Beeson 7).
This would again infringe upon the rights of the Net user both foreign and domestic, and devaluate the rich resources that we find on the web today. If we can’t rely on the PICS system to protect our children and our free speech ideals, why is it still being pursued as the standard? There are a couple reasons why the PICS system is still being pursued as the standard. The first reason is a monopoly. Two companies hold 90 percent of the browser market, Microsoft -no surprise-, and Netscape. Both support PICS labeling software packages (Beeson 13).
Unfortunately where these two companies go, most of the rest of the industry has no choice, but to follow. The second reason that the faulty PICS system is still being pursued is ignorance, pure and simple. The same ignorance and bad journalism that led to the CDA, and Julia Wilkins’ “Moral Panic”. The same Ignorance that held the bogus Time article up on the senate floor and claimed it as fact (Wilkins 2).
And according to the ACLU it’s the same ignorance that can be related to “burning down the house to roast the pigs” (qtd. in Beeson 2) The bottom line, according to Julia Wilkins, is that children are very much the minority on the web and for every child on the Web there is an adult paying for it. And for those who have children and want to keep them safe, there is plenty of education and software out there to protect the children without sacrifice to the rights of the majority (4).
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Likewise in Tim Haight’s article, “Do We Need Internet Content Rating”, he agrees users have the right to protect themselves and their children, but it needs to be done without any burden or effect on the rights of others (2).
The ACLU also agrees, and has always agreed, with providing education to parents and fully endorses the parent’s rights to choose (Beeson 12).
If not the PICS system, then what may we see in the future? That is yet to be seen. But it is clear to the ACLU in the white paper presented at the Internet summit in Washington which meticulously examined the free speech issue for all rating system, not just the PICS system. They urge industry leaders, policy makers, children groups and the Internet users “to engage in genuine debate about free speech ramifications of the rating and blocking systems being proposed.” The ACLU also gives five “recommendations and principals” to help guide the debates. The first is: “Internet users know best.” Meaning that the individual adult user know “best” what information should or shouldn’t be filtered or blocked, whether for themselves or their children. The second ACLU principal is: “Default setting on free Speech.” They fear that setting the blocking mechanism up as default on software such as browsers, or search engines, would greatly restrict the freedom of speech. The third is: “Buyers beware.” Again the ACLU stresses complete user control; control when the user wants to block and control to know what they are blocking. The fourth is: “no government coercion or censorship.” Remember the first amendment. Finally, the fifth ACLU recommendation is: “Libraries are free speech zones.” they claim that mandatory use of blocking software is a violation of the first amendment (qtd. in Beeson 5+).
In conclusion, based on key short falls of the recently endorsed PICS content labeling system, we can see that parental level blocking systems are the only solution, at the present time, that can protect our children as well as are freedoms. We see that a voluntary rating system will only lead to government censorship, and commercialized homogenized content. Potentially leaving the U.S. in a “Fortress American” Internet presence, instead of the important global one. While free speech advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, support parents and educators rights to choose, what is and isn’t appropriate for children. They continue warding caution that freedom of speech is one of our greatest freedoms, and not examining the long-term ramifications in a system such as PICS may someday cost us that freedom, and others.