In the latter half of this century the public has been inundated with symbols. In the 1990's the symbols have taken the form of colored ribbons, with each colored ribbon representing a particular political cause (i.e red for AIDS/HIV, pink for breast cancer, and green for the environment). The latest ribbon is blue, and represents the fight against one of the greatest threats to the public good, censorship of the Internet.
The American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee defines it as "The removal of material from open access by government authority" (Marsh, 1). For the past two years the United States government has been trying to censor the Internet. The first federal attempt at censorship was to signed into law, on February 8, 1996, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA). The law banned the communication of "obscene or indecent" material via the Internet to anyone under 18 years of age (Ford, Marrin, Esposito, Witmeyer & Gleser). The law was widely supported by computer and software manufacturers, many congresspersons and "family values" groups. The most prominent challenger to the CDA has been the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Many groups have joined the ACLU in their fight against Internet censorship.(1) In addition to the political and legal challenges, there have been protests. The most notable protest was "Black Page Day", when many web sites made their first page on the web black, to protest the CDA.
(1) The ACLU has been joined by 25 civil liberties groups, regional Internet service providers, commercial producers of entertainment, information, and journalism, online political columnists distributors of gay and lesbian resources, human rights groups, academic researchers of human sexuality, AIDS education groups, prisoner's rights groups, and student groups, in the challenge to online censorship.
Those who endorse censorship say that it is to protect minors from access to harmful and objectionable material. This is a noble, but impractical point of view, as it raises too many unanswerable questions. Who will decide what is indecent or objectionable? How do you censor only the explicit material used as pornography versus explicit material used to educate? How can one country censor something that is global? Where does censorship stop-explicit material, political opinion, religious beliefs? Most people believe there is no way to partially censor the Internet, and are deeply disturbed by attempts to do so.
Whether it is ethical or not to censor the Internet should be considered. Ethics are often a matter of social culture, what is ethical in one culture may be unethical in another. Since the Internet is global is would be nearly impossible to set one standard. That is why many people are advocating a ratings system for the Internet, to put the power to censor in the hands of the individual. Netscape and Microsoft want to adopt the PICS (Platform for Internet Content) and IBM is encouraging the use of the RSAC's (Recreational Software Advisory Council) RSACi ratings system.(Fahrenheit 451.2). Many believe that ratings systems are as harmful as government censorship of the Internet. The ACLU in its white paper "Fahrenheit 451.2" had this to say.
What may be the result? The Internet will become bland and homogenized. The major commercial sites will still be readily available they will have the resources and inclination to self- rate, and third-party rating services will be inclined to give them acceptable ratings. People who disseminate quirky and idiosyncratic speech, create individual home pages, or post to controversial news groups, will be among the first Internet users blocked by filters and made invisible by the search engines. Controversial speech will still exist, but will only be visible to those with tools and know-how to penetrate the dense smokescreen of industry "self-regulation."
Ratings systems will give major commercial sites an unfair and unethical advantage on the Internet, which is why those who oppose censorship of the Internet are against them.
Most Internet users say that it would be impossible to censor the Internet. When you consider the global web, anonymity, overwhelming data volume, and encryption, "All these features of the Internet make censorship technically impossible" (Chapman, 132)(2) Also, it is a common belief that the Internet interprets censorship or blocking as damage and routes around it. So, how do you censor something that is intrinsically designed to prevent and circumvent blocking? The answer is that you cannot.
(2)Gary Chapman explains in greater detail the technical features of the Internet as they relate to his belief that the Internet is a "Supranational Entity"
Internet censorship is becoming a global concern. Many countries are following the United States lead in trying to censor the web. What they fail or refuse to acknowledge is that "the global society that is the Internet has its own rules and its own methods of enforcing them -- rules and sanctions which have been developed over the decades of the Net's existence and which reflect technological and social realities in a way alternatives imposed from outside cannot." (Yee) The Internet also posesses its own code of rights and ethics (Electronic Rights and Ethics)(3) By using common sense and properly teaching our children how to use the Internet there should be no need for censorship.
(3) Electronic Rights and Ethics is document on the Internet that was constructed from suggestions and discussions of many international Internet users as a guide to provide an ethical standard for Internet use.
In a vote of 7-2 on June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Internet was fully protected by the First Amendment, and declared the CDA a violation of the freedom of speech (Braun). Even with this anti-censorship victory, pro-censorship groups are still trying to pass laws and impose rules on the Internet. That is because they are taking the narrow view, that banning or controlling information is the only way to fight incorrect or harmful information. The best way to fight misinformation is with correct information. Non-factual truth is subjective and matter of personal perspective. Only by effectively debating your argument with contentious and logical discourse, can you persuade your audience to share your point of view. Censorship denies the people their right to decide for themselves. This denial implies a lack of trust in the people to know and do what is correct and it is an attempt to control people. This same lack of trust and desire to control people has existed for as long as humanity. "Knowledge is Power", a common and ever more truthful phrase. Those in power, have always tried to control knowledge in order to control people. With the Internet that is no longer a possibility. Freedom of speech and expression in any form, has taken on a whole new meaning because of the Internet and other new technologies. Those who value freedom must act to protect this freedom of knowledge or it could be impaired or lost.
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"Electronic Rights and Ethics". URL:http://www.zip.com.au/~pete/ere.html (30 Aug 1997).
"Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?: How Rating and Blocking Proposals May Torch
Free Speech on the Internet." URL:http://www.aclu.org/issues/cyber/burning.html
(30 Aug. 1997).
Ford, Marrin, Esposito, Witmeyer & Gleser, L.L.P. "Can Congress Censor the Internet?"
URL:http://www.fmew.com/archive/censor/ (30 Aug. 1997).
Marsh, David, and Friends. 50 Ways to Fight Censorship: and Important Facts to Know About
the Censors. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.
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