Censorware ("Filtering"): It's not just for kids anymore


[ Written for a few mailing lists discussing the misleadingly-named "Children's Internet Protection Act"  ]

Censorware ("Filtering"): It's not just for kids anymore

[Fri, 23 Mar 2001 17:24:33 -0500 (EST)]

I've seen much CIPA discussion which assumes that it's only for kids. The full text of the "Children's Internet Protection Act" can be found at http://www.cybertelecom.org/cda/cipatext.htm . It's worth reading.

The name is Orwellian. It misleads people into thinking that the law only concerns children (defined in the law to be "minors", those less than 17 years old). In fact, that idea is quite false. Every section of the law which has a requirement for "minors" is followed by another requirement which is general or specifically to adults.

In particular, censorware is mandated to apply to adults in libraries:

    ``(C) CERTIFICATION WITH RESPECT TO ADULTS.--A certification under this
    paragraph is a certification that the library--
    ``(i) is enforcing a policy of Internet safety that includes the
    operation of a technology protection measure with respect to any of
    its computers with Internet access that protects against access
    through such computers to visual depictions that are-

``(I) obscene; or ``(II) child pornography; and

``(ii) is enforcing the operation of such technology protection measure during any use of such computers.

Now, a reader might object, there is nothing wrong with banning such material. It's not protected by the First Amendment. However, the key point to understand is that the law does not say the banning must be restricted to that material. Rather, it very specifically disclaims elsewhere that it does not prohibit the blacklisting of "any content other than content covered by this title".

The effect of this is to have government law behind censorware-makers, giving wide range to private, unaccountable, secret, blacklisting. Consider SmartFilter's category description:


   Extreme/Obscence/Violence (ex)

The extreme category includes URLs that may fall into other categories, but push the limits of acceptability. These URLs are typically extremely violent, gory, or horrific in nature and may be related to sex, bodily functions, obscenity, or perverse activities. ^^^^^^^^^

By having a category they claim contains "obscenity", but also has a vague, elastic definition ("push the limits of acceptability"), they have free reign here. In my SmartFilter report "I've Got A Little List" http://sethf.com/anticensorware/smartfilter/gotalist.php I called this "Mother rapers, father stabbers, littering, and creating a nuisance"

Note also that obscenity must be determined by a court, and varies from place to place (sometimes dramatically, from e.g. San Fransciso to Memphis). It is difficult topic in law, and people argue about it all the time. Turning over that judicial decision to a private blacklister, who may then make it according to their own agenda (or by a computer program), should offend every principle of free speech and the First Amendment.

But merely invoke the cry of "protect the children" (here, quite literally), and immediately all of the above is swept away in the reaction which flows from that rhetoric.

Seth Finkelstein Consulting Programmer sethf@sethf.com http://sethf.com
Anticensorware Investigations: http://sethf.com/anticensorware/
EFF Pioneer: http://www.eff.org/awards/20010305_pioneer_press_release.html

Mail comments to:  Seth Finkelstein <sethf@sethf.com>