Protecting Whom?

By Gene Teare, 10 January 1997

Ever since the 'Communications Decency Act' (CDA) became law in the United States in February 1996 the Internet community has felt under pressure to defend itself against encroaching state censorship. The proliferation of the blue ribbon campaign on the net expressed the ridicule individuals felt towards the bill. The Act itself was challenged and declared unconstitutional in the American courts in June 1996. Mike Godwin, involved in filing the law suit to seek a temporary restraining order, was taken aback by the ruling: 'When I received the decision, I had to wonder if I was still dreaming (the court ruled 3-0 to grant an injunction against the enforcement of the Communications Decency Act). It wasn't that our side had won the case that threw me; it was the sheer scope and force of the decision.'

What the bill makes clear through its lack of application by the US government is the difficulty posed in attempting to censor a global communications environment. Making a distinction (as some universities try to) between the acceptable educational/commercial use of the networks and circumspect private use for conversation is rendered useless by an environment which is both informal and useful. The development of the Internet was based on students developing tools which would allow for many 'stupid' conversations across these networks. To begin to censor these conversations would be legally dubious as is the clause at the centre of the CDA which deems that all material which is 'obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy and indecent' on-line is liable. These terms are extremely broad and open to interpretation, which has led most commentators to say that the bill is unworkable.

Even Ian Taylor, Science and Technology minister in the UK admits that dealing with undesirable material is not a straightforward issue. 'There is a distinction to be drawn between illegal material and undesirable or distasteful material. The police already act where material available on the Internet is illegal.' Even Dole himself is against the American government being able to decipher encrypted mail. Businesses would be reluctant to use the Internet for secure documents should they think that the government has a private key with which to read their mail.

Here is something to celebrate. A medium which is difficult to censor. A forum which does allow for more open communication. A technology which is potentially more secure than any other due to encryption.

We could say that that should be the end of the issue. Governments are beginning to understand that they cannot censor without creating a legal quagmire. They accept that the rules of the game have changed. As James Ferman - director of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) - claims, pre-vetting information will be a thing of the past in a post Internet age.

However, there is a sequel to the discussion. New associations have been formed to address the issue. In the UK, the Internet Server Providers Association (ISPA) is working with the police and the Home Office to come up with standards for the industry. Another initiative with Home Office backing called Safety-Net has been set up to help the Internet community adopt PICS ratings for web sites.

PICS rating on web sites allow for individual pictures or individual sites to be rated according to a scale of 1 to 5 in the categories of sex, violence, nudity and language with the least objectionable attached to the lower rating. Electronic tags are embedded into words or pictures.

As a user you can choose whose ratings you would like to abide by, be it the publisher of a site, the service provider or a choice of certain pressure groups. You can then subscribe to different PICS ratings in each category which make sure that the material being viewed is not offensive. Search engines will be fully integrated into this process. The aim is to standardise this by the end of 1997 with all sites subscribing to the ratings. Getting backing from different groupings and commercial organisations will be crucial in enforcing this. Unless comprehensive, PICS will not be workable.

PICS expresses an uneasy relationship between standards and choice. Can you have standards when the content that one individual objects to might not be objectionable to the next person? How do you assess these standards when content deemed inflammatory by one is seen to provide important information on a controversial issue by another?

The desire to clean up content does not stop with PICS ratings. Service providers are now being called on to be responsible. 'If a service provider who takes up the option that is being offered by Safety-Net looks at the articles that are deemed to be illegal and then takes them off the news server, they are protecting themselves from prosecution' says Supt. Mike Hoskins of the Vice Squad. Self regulation with a whip. This greatly enhances the insecurity of service providers who understand that if they go along with stopping material that is deemed illegal, they cross over from being carriers (like a book store which is not liable for the 'content' it stocks) to being publishers. This would open them up to being held accountable in many other circumstances for content.

Even as Mike Godwin claims that we have won, we are being faced with censorship by another name. This is more worrying as it is censorship in a language which claims to be your choice.

The premise of all these initiatives is to make the Internet viewable for children. It is understandable that parents are concerned about what their children access, but is it sensible to build an entertainment and information network with a five year old's viewing pattern as the principle criterion? If the breadth, width and depth of the Internet must subscribe to being codified according to acceptable viewing criteria, it not only assumes that children need protection and guidance, but that the ensuing standards should apply to us all. Until this one fails, wait for those who profess they are anti-censorship but have come up with another brave idea which ultimately circumscribes us all.

Gene Teare, co-founder of Cyberia