Internet Censorship

The Internet is the newest telecommunications medium to be developed and because of this there is much debate on whether this technology should be censored. The debate has resulted in national and international attention. The essential issue in the debate is whether the Internet is a print medium or a broadcast medium. A print medium like a newspaper, has strong protection against government interference while a broadcast medium like television, is subject to all sorts of government control. Proponents of censorship include parents who have concerns about what their kids are being exposed to on the Internet. They are concerned about pornography, hate sites, bomb sites, as well as child molesters who often hang out in chat rooms for kids. Opponents of censorship say that censorship of the Internet would violate the First Amendment and would turn the Internet into a children’s reading room where only subjects suitable for kids could be discussed. (Elmer-Dewitt, 1995)

In 1995, Senator James Exon (D-Neb.) introduced a bill regulating electronic communications. He amended an existing law against harassment, obscenity, or threats made by telephone and changed the word “telephone” to “telecommunications devices.” The Exon bill stated that any “comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication” that is found by a court to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent” be punishable by fines up to $10,000 and two years in jail. Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana who co-sponsored the controversial anti-cyberporn bill with Senator Exon said, “We face a unique, disturbing and urgent circumstance, because it is children who are the computer experts in our nation’s families.” The Exon bill was part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1995. (Foerstel, 46)

Many public interest groups such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the CDA. The two groups submitted a joint letter to Senator Exon. They expressed their concern that the bill would pose a serious threat to freedom of speech and the free flow of information in cyberspace. They said the bill also raised questions about the rights of government to control content on communications networks. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that the CDA is a clear violation of free speech and the rights of adults to communicate with each other. (Foerstel, 46-47)
Representatives Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act as an alternative to the CDA. The Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act would encourage the on-line industry to police itself. They hoped to help encourage technologies that would help companies, parents, and schools to block out objectionable material from the Internet. The legislation also ensured that on-line companies could screen out obscene material without being held accountable for every message transmitted over their systems. The Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act was the House of Representative’s version of the CDA and was passed in the House by a vote of 420 to 4. (Foerstel, 47)

The Exon bill was easily passed through committee and on to the full Senate. Senator Exon had some of the rawest images of pornography online printed out and brought them to the Senate in a blue folder and placed it on his desk. He then asked other senators to stop by his desk on the Senate floor to view them. Exon said, “I knew it was bad. But then when I got on there, it made Playboy and Hustler look like Sunday-school stuff.” Few senators wanted to cast a vote that might be characterized as pro-pornography. The full Senate passed the CDA by a vote of 84 to 16. When the House and the Senate Bills were combined by congressional conferees, the original Exon bill was retained. The CDA became part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and President Clinton signed the act on February 8, 1996. (Elmer-Dewitt, 1995)

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union and 18 other organizations, initiated a constitutional challenge to the CDA in federal court on February 8, 1996 citing that the statue is unconstitutional. The case was called ACLU vs. Janet Reno. The case was consolidated with a similar lawsuit filed by the American Library Association and other plaintiffs. (EPIC, 1998 & EPIC, 1995) The ACLU and the other groups argued that the CDA bill is unconstitutional because the term “indecent” describes a standard too vague for law enforcement and because the Internet is too large and complex to police effectively. (Whitmer & Aguilar, 1996) A special three-judge court in Philadelphia ruled on June 12, 1996, that the CDA is an unconstitutional abridgement of rights protected by the First and Fifth Amendments. (EPIC, 1998)

“The Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion,” said U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell in an individual opinion submitted as part of the court ruling. The court ruled that the Internet is a unique medium and that it is neither a print or broadcast medium but its closest form of media is the telephone system. “The decision reflects an enormously sophisticated understanding of the Internet, and I think it will guide all future courts in deciding a whole variety of issues that apply to the net. Most importantly, it sets us on a path toward free speech on the Internet”, said Christopher Hansen, legal counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in ACLU vs. Reno. (Whitmer & Aguilar, 1996) Because the Supreme Court has determined that censoring of the Internet is unconstitutional, parents are asking how they can protect their children from inappropriate content on the Internet.

There are many strategies parents can take to ensure that their children are not surfing into dangerous territory. It is important for parents to monitor their children at an early age when they surf the Net. Blocking programs such as Net Nanny, SurfWatch, CyberSitter, and Media Live’s Surf Monkey automatically block out inappropriate information. The problem with this is that information that can be of educational value such as information about contraception or breast cancer would also be blocked.

Parents can go onto the computer and it will list all of the websites visited. In Internet Explorer, this list is in the History file and in Netscape Navigator this list is in the cache, which can be accessed by typing “about:global” in the address field. (Okrent, 1999)

Having filters on home computers is one issue but creating an international rating and filtering system is quite another. The Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) submitted a statement to the Internet Content Summit held September 9-11 in Munich, Germany which states their position that an international rating and filtering system would actually encourage government restrictions on Internet expression. They say that such a system would prohibit individuals from discussing controversial or unpopular topics, ruin the cultural diversity of the Internet, and create a homogenized Internet dominated by large commercial interests. GILC has issue two other statements on the issue, “Impact of Self-Regulation and Filtering on Human Rights to Freedom of Expression” in March 1998 and a “Submission to the World Wide Web Consortium on PICSRules” in December 1997. These statements show the international concern that “voluntary” proposals to control Internet content could have on the right of freedom of opinion and expression which are guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. GILC says in its 1999 statement, “The rejection of rating and filtering systems would not leave the online community without alternatives to state regulation. In fact, alternative solutions exist that would likely be more effective than the legal and technical approaches that have created a binary view of the issue of children’s access to Internet content. Approaches that emphasize education and parental supervision should receive far more attention than then they have to date, as they alone posses the potential to effectively direct young people toward beneficial and appropriate uses of the Internet.” (GILC, 1999)

Eastern Connecticut State University’s J. Eugene Smith Library subscribes to the Statement on Internet Filtering adopted by the Connecticut Library Association Executive Board on March 11, 1999. (ECSU, 1999) “The Connecticut Library Association supports the principle of open, free, and unrestricted access to information and ideas, regardless of the format in which they appear.” “The Connecticut Library Association does not recommend the use of Internet filters in libraries and emphatically opposes attempts by federal and state governments to mandate their use.” (CLA, 1999)

In China, Singapore, and Iran material that is censored by the government includes sexually explicit material, hate speech, pro-democracy discussions, and human rights education. Australia, however, is one of the first democratic countries who have enacted legislation that mandates blocking the Internet based on existing national film and video classification guidelines. (Sorensen, 1996) If the United States enacted any type of Internet censorship, it would not only violate people’s

First Amendment rights, but would also narrow the gap between a democratic society and a dictatorial society. Unlike any other medium, the Internet allows people to share their opinions and allows them to instantly communicate with others across the country and across the world. We will always encounter people and material that offends us and we will always want to protect our children from the dangers of society. However, parents and schools should work together to educate children concerning appropriate content on the Internet as well as closely monitoring the content that children see on the Internet.

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