Issue 69, Spring 1998


In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision affirming that free speech principles apply online as well as in print (Reno v. ACLU), summit meetings are convened, industry representatives rushed to develop blocking technology, government regulators have flexed their muscles, and school and library boards have initiated restrictive Internet policies.

All this is a response to highly politicized crusades for “family-friendly” environments in the media as well as in schools and libraries. Defining a “family friendly” environment, however, is like trying to pin Jello to a wall. Some object to sex and violence, while others would bleep expression of racial, ethnic or religious bigotry. Still others would ban any information about drugs, alcohol, or scientific experiments on animals. Different groups have different perspectives, but they all share a common motive; they want to control speech they don’t like.

Government pressure on the communications industry to adopt blocking technology and rating systems for the Internet raises issues familiar from the TV ratings debate, about the role of government in determining the content of speech. Many constitutional scholars believe government pressure on the private sector flies in the face of the First Amendment principle, Government shall make no law…. When Senator John McCain and others–in response to NBC’s refusal to go along with a proposed new rating system–threaten to withhold licensing from TV stations that resist rating demands and relegate TV programs with violent content to the late night, compliance can hardly be called voluntary.

These and other issues were addressed at NCAC’s Seminar in New York recently, “Censorship’s Tools Du Jour.” Panelist Rick Cotton, General Counsel for NBC–the lone major network to resist demands for expanded TV ratings–said labelling is inflammatory, and will shrink the diversity of programming because advertisers will sponsor only the most commercially viable programs. Judith Krug, Director of the Intellectual Freedom Office of the American Library Association, called filters “sledgehammers trying to do the job of scalpels.” Pressures on libraries to filter the Internet are antithetical to the library’s purposes–to make information available. Filtering programs are so nondiscriminating, she said, that when they block access to categories such as sex, they block any site where the three letters come together, including those about “sextons.”

Solange Bitol, Legislative Counsel of ACLU, added that Amazon Books’ entire web site sometimes gets blocked for offering The Joy of Sex. She described Senator McCain’s proposal to withhold federal funding from schools that do not install blocking mechanisms. Internet servers themselves limit access to many sites, making censorship on the Internet so subtle, she said, that consumers have no idea what they are missing.

Harry Hochheiser, Director at Large of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, described the various blocking techniques, including PICS, a flexible system which can combine various rating systems. Hochheiser said there are 40 million web sites and new material being developed every day, making it impossible to track or filter with any accuracy. In his opinion, only 1% of material on the Internet is “beyond the pale.”

Parental concerns about the quality of TV programming and children’s exposure to gratutitous sex and violence are not wholly inappropriate; nor are blocking, filtering and rating devices–whatever their merits–for purely private use. Demands for their use in schools and libraries, however, raise the specter of government control of controversial images and dissenting viewpoints, resulting in bland, sanitized media. For NCAC’s background paper on filters and rating systems for TV and the Internet, click here.