Internet filtering hurts those who are least able to protest it

by Andy Oram




What could bring together the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the MIT
Media Lab, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a school
principals' association? Answer: a press conference I attended today
on Internet filtering and the Children's Internet Protection Act.




Very few people showed up, which was demoralizing but not surprising.
Putatively, there was no news hook to draw the journalists. But we
reviewed a

report

by the EFF and the Online Policy Group that found:





  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the least
    restrictive settings will block between 1/2% and 5% of search results
    based on state-mandated curriculum topics.






  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the most
    restrictive settings will block up to 70% of search results
    based on state-mandated curriculum topics.







If that's not a scandal to rock our educational establishment, what
is? I proposed that somebody organize a student boycott on this
issue, using a recent protest against standardized testing as an
inspiration.




Last year, in Massachusetts, a number of high school students
organized themselves and refused to take the required mandatory
tests. (Several in my home town of Arlington were suspended for this
act of civil disobedience.) I don't want to argue the potential good
or ill of standardized tests here, but just point out that the protest
got media coverage and attention from school boards.




In the same way, students could refuse to turn in a homework
assignment and cite lack of access to the necessary materials. Those
with Internet access in the home could point to the discrimination
created against those who rely on school or public library computers.




But this pie-in-the-sky suggestion shows how resistant the
moralist-industrial complex is to protests. Those of us who understand
what filters do and what is wrong with them almost always have
uncensored access and can treat the issue as academic (in many senses
of the word). I myself, after writing

thirty articles

over a period of six years, stopped doing it because I felt I had
written everything worth saying on the subject.




(For those who want something that goes beyond the usual diatribes,
try my articles

Why I Do Not Install Filters On My Children's Computer

and

Nazis, Neos, and Other Nasties On the Net
.)




Few of the people directly harmed by the censorship are like Bennett
Haselton, who started the
Peacefire
anti-censorship site as a high-school student.
Students don't know what they're missing, and to ice the cake,
many censorware products block sites like Peacefire that offer the
truth about those censorware products.




Similarly, librarians have no clout with anyone in power, and teachers
have more pressing issues on which to expend their limited political
capital. Thus, Internet filtering resembles welfare cuts and police
dragnets in housing projects, in that the people who suffer from them
either don't know how to protest or face nothing but further danger if
they do.




A teacher and a principal came to speak at today's press conference,
but they offered only modest critiques of filtering from the
standpoint of its operation. It was good for us all to come together,
because those of us with technical or civil liberties backgrounds
could offer the teachers other angles and hopefully lead them to
express stronger opposition to the filters on principled grounds.




And it was also good to let the teachers explain their concerns to
us--for instance, the fear that some elementary student will go home
someday and tell her parents she saw something inappropriate on a
school computer. Teachers can easily be driven to hide (ineffectively)
behind censorware by the fear of having some rabid control freaks like
the Parents Rights Coalition descend on them and tear apart all the
good work the schools try to do to foster open discussion.




(One more plug--this one for my comic short story about high-school
students fighting Internet censorship: "The Meaning of Independence
Day,"
Part 1
and
Part 2.)




One of the best spokesmen concerning censorware is the one who knows
the code:
Seth Finkelstein,
who won the
2001 EFF Pioneer Award
for deciphering several filtering programs. Seth is a crackerjack
programmer who ought to be earning six figures somewhere. But the
modest publicity he got for the EFF Award did not translate into job
prospects, and he can't publish much of his
research
because he'll be
sued
by censorware companies angry at having their operations revealed.




We discussed the World Wide Web Consortium's
PICS
specification, which has stagnated after a flurry
of commercial interest, but which is still very much on
the minds of European governments, who hope to turn it
into a mechanism for localized government control over
Internet content.




Seth wisely avoids talking to people about their values. Instead, he
talks about the architectural implications of censorware. He
criticizes the use of the term "filter." Its associations of
cleanliness and protectiveness hide the architectural truth, which is
this: no one can design a system that "protects" kiddies from erotic
content without providing China with a system that "protects" its citizens from
news, and providing Saudi Arabia with a system that "protects" its
women from sites about women's rights.




He also points out that the Internet is young and has been in the
public eye for only four or five years. It took the government much
longer to regulate radio and other new technologies. We have no idea
what regulation may ultimately settle in place for the Internet--but
we'd better be debating it.




Thus, censorware is part of a much larger issue of architecture and
control, the issue about which Lawrence Lessig has been urging us all
to get active. That's why the journalists should come to the next
press conference about censorware. And perhaps why I still haven't
written everything about it worth saying.