[Fwd: What goes around, comes around]

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at igc.apc.org
Thu Jun 11 23:58:12 PDT 1998

>From Today's (6/11) New York Times:

Christian Group Feels Net Filter's Wrath


Concerned that children have easy access to pornography and other inappropriate material on the Internet, the American Family Association, a conservative, Christian group, has been a vocal supporter of filtering products, software meant to cordon off the nastier corners of cyberspace fromusers, especially young children.

So it was with some surprise that officials at the group recently discovered that their association's own Webpages were being lumped together with skinhead, white supremacist and other "intolerant" sites blocked by apopular filter called Cyber Patrol.

The site was banned, officials at the organization learned, because of passages declaring the group's adamantopposition to homosexuality and gay rights. Association officials insist, however, that their viewpoint is adeeply-held religious conviction that does not equate to preaching hatred of homosexuals, and they asked aspecial Cyber Patrol "oversight committee" to remove the block.

But by a majority vote Tuesday night, the committee decided to keep the gate up, at least for now. Thecommittee also decided to take another look at the American Family Association site in a month, and toreview other pro-and anti-gay Web sites to see if they met the filter's "intolerance" definition.

Longtime opponents of filters, who view the products as clumsy high-tech censors, are savoring the irony ofthe dispute. "This is yet another illustration of how badly the filtering concept can be applied, even comingback to bite proponents of that approach," said David L. Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic PrivacyInformation Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating civil liberties on the Internet.

Supporters of filters respond that the flap in no way undermines their belief in the necessity of the productsto help parents shield the young from what they view as pernicious influences online. "If Cyber Patrolchooses to leave our site blocked, it will be unfortunate, but it will not change our viewpoint about the needfor filtering on the World Wide Web," Casey M. Smith, Jr. executive assistant at the Tupelo, Miss.-basedAmerican Family Association, said before the vote. He called filtering "an absolute must" -- and Wednesdaymorning, after the Cyber Patrol committee vote, he stood by his views.

Whatever the outcome of the dispute, a growing national argument over the appropriate role of filtering isunlikely to go away.

In fact, the debate is heating up, as federal and state lawmakers rush to introduce legislation mandating theuse of filters in public settings. In the United States Senate, for example, a bill that would require schoolsand libraries seeking new federal Internet subsidies to certify that they have installed filtering software isfacing opposition from free speech groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as some localschool officials who believe the legislation would undermine community decision-making.

Then there are the two lawsuits that have been filed against public libraries for their opposite policiesregarding filtering software. In the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, a suit brought bya group called Mainstream Loudoun and 11 individuals charges that the Loudoun County, Va. librarysystem's use of filtering software on all its patron computers violates adults' First Amendment rights.Meanwhile, in California state Superior Court in Alameda County, a mother who charges that her13-year-old son was able to download sexually graphic images from computers at a public library is suingthe City of Livermore to require library officials to take aggressive measures, such as installing filters, tokeep children from online pornography.

Those who favor filters say parents cannot be expected to monitor their children's use of the Internet at alltimes, so the products -- an estimated 15 to 30 on the market -- are the only practical way to protect childrenfrom harmful material in cyberspace. "It would be a crime in every state to give a kid Hustler magazine --and if filtering is a way to keep that kind of material from kids on computers, then it should be done," saidBruce A. Taylor, president and chief counsel of the National Law Center for Children and Families inFairfax, Va.

Furthermore, filter makers say, many of the devices allow customers flexibility in what to restrict. CyberPatrol, for example, bans up to 12 categories of material considered inappropriate for the typical 12-year-oldsurfing without an adult, from gambling to cult Web sites. But customers can pick and choose whichcategories to block, as well as unlock access to individual sites they consider acceptable, according to SusanGetgood, spokeswoman for The Learning Company Inc., the Cambridge, Mass. educational software firmthat makes Cyber Patrol. And, she notes, in Cyber Patrol's case online publishers who believe their sites havebeen unfairly blocked can take the route of the American Family Association and appeal the decision to anindependent panel that includes educators, parents and representatives of groups as diverse as the Gay andLesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the conservative Morality in Media.

Critics reply that filtering technology -- which is based on keyword searches, human ratings of Web sites ora combination of the two depending on the product -- is still so crude that the software fails to capture all ofthe pornography on the Internet, while at the same time banishing arguably legitimate material.Furthermore, few of the filtering companies disclose their lists of banned material, so customers often do notknow which sites are blocked.

Perhaps most important, however, is that inevitably filters reflect the subjective judgments of the humanbeings behind them. Sobel, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said this is especially bad news forWeb publishers with strongly-held non-mainstream viewpoints. "If filters become popular, there will bestrong incentives to create content that is as bland as possible, so as not to run afoul of some rater's sense ofwhat is 'inappropriate' or 'intolerant,'" he said.

The American Family Association Web site ran into trouble with Cyber Patrol because researchers at thecompany decided it met the filter's definition of intolerance, which includes discrimination based on sexualorientation. Typical of the passages Cyber Patrol found offensive, according Smith of the American FamilyAssociation, was the following: "Every time our young people hear about a 'gay' pride event or 'coming out'celebration, they become less sensitive to the perversity of homosexuality and more likely to experimentwith it."

Smith concedes that these words are strong stuff. But, he says, they are delivered in the context of thegroup's belief that God loves all and are not akin to Neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan-type virulence.

Intolerant and therefore inappropriate for children? "We are not intolerant here," Smith says.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list