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Citizen Censorship or Government Control?

By Howard Rheingold

What are we really going to do about porno on the Internet? If censorship laws are not the answer, the question of easy access by children to objectionable material online remains a concern to parents, librarians, and teachers. But there is a crucial difference between controlling what your children or students see and hear and giving that control to an agency of the government. Despite the political tactics of would-be censors, speaking up for the rights of families and schools to make our own decisions is not the same thing to advocating pornography for children.

Personally, I believe we need to teach our children good sense about how to use all media. We need to teach them right from wrong and give them opportunities to exercise good judgement and make moral choices. But I respect the wishes of parents who want to strictly limit their children's access to content they find objectionable. Letting every family decide for itself is what the phrase "family values" ought to mean. But that means families need tools. If we have effective tools, we won't need dangerous rules.

When "SurfWatch," the first commercial software for giving parents Internet censorship power, was released, the objection I heard most often was that parents fear that their children know far more about computers than they do. Even the relatively simple software like SurfWatch that would give parents the power to lock out objectionable material, is considered too difficult to use by some parents. My answer to that is that we don't have a choice: parents had better learn how to operate this simple software, or programs like it, before they go bleating to the government to set up a censorship police. It is our responsibility as parents to overcome our ignorance of the world our children inhabit. Learn something about where your children spend their time, and that includes the cyberspaces they are exploring while they are sitting in their rooms alone.

Some say that no standalone software is going to solve the problem, that censorship tools need to be built into the way the network works. The "v-chip" proposal for television sets, for example, relies on a rating system. Programs that are rated as too violent could be automatically blocked, on a household by household basis, on the command of that household, by the v-chip. If there was an agreed system of ratings, individual households and institutions could decide exactly how to set their own censorship filters.

The rush to make ignorant and ultimately harmful laws, fueled by phony research such as the discredited Rimm Study of pornography on the net, is senseless. We already have tools for solving this problem at the level it ought to be solved, the family and community. There are several excellent proposals for technical measures that would give parents, teachers, and librarians control over how children access objectionable material. These tools make the parent, teacher, and librarian, not the state or federal government, the arbiter of which material is objectionable and which material is acceptable. While ambitious politicians, using bogus research, brandish the image of porn-shocked children to cover for their own naked power-grab, some of the most important institutions in the nascent online industry are actually doing something about parental control of children's Internet access.

Three of the biggest and most influential computer network companies, Progressive Networks, Microsoft, and Netscape Communications have formed the Information Highway Parental Empowerment Group. They are working to complete a report about parental information-blocking software by the end of 1995, and to implement a system to do that soon after. The working group is acting quickly, to build the tools for censoring content at the local level into the way the world's networks work.

There is no question that censorship will come to cyberspace soon.The important question now is whether it will be done through citizen-operated tools or through State-imposed rules.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold