Censorship and the Internet
Biram Mboob London School of Economics
“Inevitably, being an uncontrolled system, means that the Internet will be subjected to subversive applications of some unscrupulous users.” (Kershaw)
The concept of the Internet was created in answer to a strategic problem faced by the United States government during the Cold war era. A nuclear attack would easily disrupt a traditional computer network and hence make communication impossible. The solution was found in a new type of network. A network where all nodes would be equal in status, that is to say each could send and receive messages. The resulting projects were the first steps towards the birth of the Internet, as we know it.
Today, the Internet consists of several parts, which include the World Wide Web, FTP, IRC, News groups, Gopher, WAIS, Archie, and Email. The Internet is continuing to grow at a rate of 40% a year, with roughly 20 million users to date.
Over the past few years, the issue of Internet censorship has been subject to an unprecedented amount of controversy. Both sides of the debate present very strong arguments about why the Internet should or should not be censored. The point most often brought forward by advocates of Internet censorship is that “inappropriate” material can all too easily land in the hands of children via this powerful new medium. “Inappropriate” mostly describes the sexually explicit and racist material that is easily found on the Internet. The debate that currently rages however centres mainly on pornographic material.
The essay is divided into three content-based sections. The first section examines the data that is available about pornography on the Internet. Conclusions on significance of the data are offered. Section two examines the legal issues and difficulties surrounding the idea of censorship. The final section discusses alternative ways of protecting children from pornography and offers a final conclusion on the attributes of the problem and the suggestion of a solution.
Censorship of Internet is a big issue and not much of it can be covered in an essay at this level. The essay deliberately focuses only on pornography. While many aspects had to be left out and others discussed minimally, the result of this essay remains a brief synopsis of relevant issues and conclusions on these issues.
In early 1995, a research team at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania released one of the most revealing studies into online pornography. The value of study, titled “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway” is realised mainly due to its massive sample size.
There are several issues about pornography on the Internet that were highlighted by the study. The research team surveyed 917,410 “sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips”. Of special interest were Usenet newsgroups, which are basically electronic forums. It was found that 83.5 percent of the digitised images stored on these newsgroups were pornographic pictures.
This finding indicates that there clearly is a substantial amount of pornography on the net. This however does not necessarily indicate that this material is easy to find. To come to a conclusion, this student conducted several experiments using the on-line “Altavista” search engine.
The key searchword “sex” was entered. 616,156 links were returned. Out of the first 20 entries listed on the first page only 2 links were to pornographic sites. The search keyword “tits” however, returned 69,920 links. Out of the first 20 links listed on the first page 17 were to pornographic websites or bulletin boards. Amidst all these links was one that led to a French children’s pen-pal club called “Les P’tits Garnements. After reviewing the posted messages and photographs on one of the bulletin boards that showed up as a link, it was apparent that the purpose of the site was purely for exchange of child pornography.
It is most likely that a minor would come across explicit areas of the Internet through search engines. Children are very likely to search using traditionally rude four-letter words more as a source of childish amusement than anything else. There can be no argument that the resulting links do not justify the level of parental anxiety that we are witnessing today. Explicit sexual material on the Internet is not the result of an unfounded moral panic. Anyone that takes the time to conduct a few experiments as detailed above will realise that this is a most serious issue.
The survey also determined that 71 percent of the sexual images on the newsgroups surveyed originate from adult-oriented computer bulletin-board systems (BBS) whose operators are trying to lure customers to their private collections of X-rated material. There are thousands of these BBS services, which charge fees (typically $10 to $30 a month) and take credit cards; the five largest have annual revenues in excess of $1 million.
This finding is a valuable one. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, explicit material is not being circulated by “perverted socially reclusive computer nerds”. This is a commercial activity. As long as people are willing to pay for it, it will be supplied. This is not a new problem that society faces. Prostitution and drug trading are other older facets of this same concept. The Internet has simply brought a new face of the same issue.
Perhaps the most disturbing discovery of the Carnegie Mellon study is one that relates to the changing face of pornography. It is no longer “just naked women”. There is great demand and inevitably great supply of “pedophilia” (nude photos of children), “hebephilia” (youths) and what the researchers call “paraphilia” (“a grab bag of deviant material that includes images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with a barnyard full of animals”). Anti-censorship activists often argue that censoring the net “makes no difference” because “obscene” material is available from any old corner shop. These newer “types” of pornography may actually render this argument obsolete. Children are certainly exposed to material that even the most adventurous of them would not have normally come across.
Most societies like to think of themselves as at least doing something to limit the development of “problems” such as pornography on the Internet. Governments of the United Kingdom and United States have both taken legislative steps towards this effect.
It has not been easy in either case and the outcomes have arguably been altogether unsatisfactory.
United Kingdom legislation includes several statutes that are of particular interest.
Section 1(1) of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act provides the following test for obscenity:
“For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”
This definition of “obscene” stems from the opinion of Lord Cockburn concerning the case Regina v. Hicklin (1868), enunciated the first important guide in determining what material was obscene. It is open to serious criticism. The fundamental problem with this definition is that it can condemn material that may legitimately dealt with sex.
Section 43 of the Telecommunications 1984 Act makes it an offence to send ‘by means of a public telecommunications system, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’ and is an imprisonable offence with a maximum term of six months.
When carefully scrutinised it is clear that the Act itself does not penalise the act of procuring a message to be sent. As usual, there are loopholes abound. When a telecommunication system located outside the jurisdiction is used to send obscene materials into the country, no offence has been committed. The 1984 Act will also not apply to cases where the data is transmitted by using a local area network unless part of the transmission is routed through a public telecommunications system. Even though UK legislation has recently been amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (‘CJPOA 1994’), in order to keep up with technological changes, there are still wrinkles in its enforcement with respect to the Internet.
United State legislation has gone through many different tests of “obscenity” for reasons too many and varied to be discussed here. The current definition of obscenity is based on several conditions as opposed to a single one.
On June 14, 1995, the Senate debated and voted on Title IV of the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995 (S.652). Also known as the Communications Decency Act of 1995, it proposed to amend Section 223 (47 U.S.C. 223) to read:
“Whoever, by means of telecommunications device knowingly makes, creates, or solicits, and initiates the transmission of, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person,” will be charged with a felony punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 or up to two years in prison, or both.”
There are two immediately obvious reasons why the CDA was doomed to fail. Firstly, it may have severely restricted the flow of information and free speech.
In its online analysis the “Electronic Frontier Foundation” (EFF), stated:
“[T]he legislation not only fails to solve the problems it is intended to address, but it also imposes content restrictions on computer communications that would chill First Amendment-protected speech and, in effect, restrict adults in the public forums of computer networks to writing and reading only such content as is suitable for children.”
A second problem was the uncompromising nature of the bill. A particular example would perhaps best illustrate this point. An online appeal from an organisation called Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) stated the following:
“This proposed law could mean the demise of the Seattle Community Network
(SCN), a 6,500-member free, public access computer network established to benefit the public. Under the proposed legislation, if an individual member of the SCN posted a message on an SCN forum or from SCN that was later deemed to be “indecent,” SCN could be fined $100,000, and SCN’s board of Directors and staff could face two-year prison sentences. Yet without community networks like SCN, the Internet would be out of reach to millions of citizens.”
It is easy to admire the ideals that the CDA stands for. The Senate approved the Act with a vote of 84-16. The approach of the legislation however, is much too naive. In June of 1997 the CDA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it “violates constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression”.
The general problem with legislation with respect to the Internet is the fact that regulation laws have for so long been focused on traditional media channels such as radio and television. The Internet is new and extreme form of media. It is thus incompatible with existing laws. New and equally extreme laws would be necessary to regulate the Internet. However, as experience with the CDA has shown, extreme laws are not very popular and are likely to be contested and overthrown.
Even the most zealous censorship advocate would be blind not to realise that a world-wide censorship programme would be futile. National laws and community standards vary from nation to nation and even between regions of the same country. It would be virtually impossible to get every nation on earth to agree to a single censorship act. Thus, the Internet, in its entirety, can never truly be censored. Even if the politics of it could be appeased, there are too many sources of pornography. Even the most ambitious regulatory agency could not hope to control them all.
So the question of how to keep pornography away from children still remains.
Following the 1996 period of extensive controversy over pornography on the Internet, many sexually explicit websites introduced password protection schemes. Before being allowed access to the site a password is required. To obtain a password a user must subscribe to company such as “Adultcheck”. Online credit card payment is required before passwords are dispensed, the idea being that minors will not have access to credit cards. It seems like an attractive solution. Legislation could be used to compel the pornography industry to self-regulate itself in order to safeguard their substantial profits. There are two reasons however, why this would be an incomplete solution. Firstly, many websites would be out of the jurisdiction of the legislation and thus free to operate without password schemes. There would probably even be a significant number of renegade sites that would ignore legislation and get away with it. Secondly, many people simply give away their passwords on bulletin boards, which defeats the whole purpose of the scheme.
The solution that parents and educators are currently turning to most is the censor software approach. Censor or filtering software works by denying access to “objectionable” websites on the Internet. There are two main reasons why this approach is at most inadequate. The first drawback relates to technological imperfections and was well highlighted in a study titled “Faulty filters”, released by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) in November 1997. The study involved the conducting of up to 100 searches using a normal search engine and then the conducting of the same searches via one of the new search engine that claim to return only “family-friendly” links. It was found that the search engine “typically blocked access to 95-99 percent of the material available on the Internet that might be of interest to young people”. The study also noted that even when strict “blocking criteria were used links to “objectionable” material still showed up. The conclusion of the study seriously questioned the filtering software approach to Internet censorship on the basis of its potential to “ultimately diminish the educational value of the Internet”. The study is not optimistic about any improved performance of filtering software with the passage of time.
The second drawback is concerned with a much more sinister aspect of censor software. In the February 1998 edition of “.net.” magazine; an article about filtering software presented some disturbing facts. The article revealed that that Solid Oaks’ CYBERsitter, a popular filtering program, actually blocked sites of groups such as “The National Organisation for Women” and “The Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation”. An even more worrying revelation was that among the list of words and phrases that were to be blocked by the program were the phrases “dontbuycybercitter” and “bennethasleton” the name of an 18 year old anti-censorship activist. This implies that there are serious political and commercial agendas behind the facade of “censorship”. This may perhaps be the general problem with censorship. It tries to promote a particular rigid set of morals and values on everybody concerned and at times is abused in order to advance other hidden agendas. Whatever the solution to the problem of pornography on the Internet it is unlikely to have anything to do with technically unsophisticated software that considers “gay rights” to be an objectionable topic.
In August 1995, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a twenty-two company consortium gathered under the held a conference discuss the need to create self-imposed ratings systems which would allow parents to control what children are allowed to see on the Internet. The result of the group’s work, to date, is the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS is similar to the V-chip technology that was suggested for shielding children from sex and violence on television. In this case websites voluntarily “label” their content. What this technology may mean for parents is the ability to specify viewing levels for their children according to what they feel their children should be exposed to.
Intuition suggests that a complete censorship program would be practically impossible. There are too many obstacles including the inability of current legislation to deal with the unique nature of the Internet without resorting to extreme and unpopular measures. The Internet, to be utilised to its full value, simply must remain as it is. Protection of minors from “obscene” material must be a sort of add-on. Filtering software is an attractive concept, but as discussed above, has enough shortcomings to make it a questionable approach. The only hope lies in the advancement of technology. The MIT consortium and their work with PICS illustrates the kind of solution that would be most ideal. PICS is simply a technical standard that will supposedly allow concerned parents and educators to tighten their control over what children can see on the Internet. Unlike filtering software, it does not impose any scheme of values on its user population or advance any hidden agendas. Hopefully, with the advancement of fifth generation computers and artificial intelligence schemes such as this will eventually approach minimal defect. The question that will then remain will be a much more of a human one. Technology can never really replace parental guidance. Children absorb sexually explicit material because of their basic curiosity, which stems from inexperience in the ways of the world. Parents and educators must recognise their duty to nurture the growth of children and encourage broad-minded yet ethically aware mental development. Only then will society be facing up to its basic problems as opposed to merely trying to diminish their effects.