Essay, Research Paper: Internet Censorship


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The Internet is a wonderful place of entertainment and education but like all
places used by millions of people, it has some murky corners people would prefer
children not to explore. In the physical world society as a whole conspires to
protect children, but there are no social or physical constraints to Internet
surfing. The Internet Censorship Bill of 1995, also known as the Exon/Coats
Communications Decency Act, has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. It would
make it a criminal offense to make available to children anything that is
indecent, or to send anything indecent with "intent to annoy, abuse,
threaten, or harass" ("Stop the Communications ..." n.p.). The
goal of this bill as written(though not as stated by its proponents) is to try
to make all public discourse on the Internet suitable for young children. The
issue of whether is it necessary to have censorship on the Internet is being
argued all over the world. There are numerous homepages on the World Wide Web
discussing this issue, or asking people to sign the petition to stop government
censorship. The Internet was originally a place for people to freely express
their ideas worldwide. It is also one of America's most valuable types of
technology; scientists use email for quick and easy communication. They post
their current scientific discoveries on the Usenet newsgroups so other
scientists in the same field of study all over the world can know in minutes.
Ordinary people use the Net for communication, expressing their opinions in the
newsgroups, obtaining up-to-date information from the WWW, acquiring files by
using FTP, etc. Censorship would damage the atmosphere of the freedom to express
ideas on the Internet; therefore, government should not encourage censorship. In
the Internet community, there is a large volume of technical terms. For this
reason, it is first necessary to examine the terminology specific to Internet.
The Internet is a world wide computer network. The "Net" is frequently
used in place of Internet. In the words of Allison and Baxter, two experts on
Internet Censorship at the Monash University, "the Internet is comprised of
various digital media subsuming many of the distinct roles of traditional
media" (Allison and Baxter 3). Electronic mail (email), which is one
component of the Internet, approximates person to person letters, memoranda,
notes and even phone calls. Sound and pictures are sometimes sent along with
text. Email is mainly for private communication. Electronic mailing lists are
rather like club newsletters and readers have to contract-in or subscribe to a
list. Another term that is often used is electronic news (enews/Usenet), enews
is a broadcast, free to the Internet medium. It has some properties of radio or
television, particularly talk-back radio or television, in that the destination
is indiscriminate. The term FTP is also frequently used. File transfer protocol
(FTP) started as an Internet archival and retrieval medium, somewhat analogous
to traditional libraries. Files can be retrieved from distant computers using a
traditional text-based interface. The world-wide web (WWW), which is another
component of the Net, can be used to "publish" material that would
traditionally appear in journals, magazines, posters, books, television and even
on film. The term UNIX, "a widely heard computer term, is a multi-user,
multitasking operating system originally developed by Ken Thompson and Dennis
Ritchie, at AT&T Bell Laboratories, in 1969 for use on minicomputers"
("UNIX" n.p.). To understand the background of the controversy, it is
also necessary to give a brief history on the Internet. The Internet was created
about twenty years ago in an attempt to connect a U.S. Defense Department
network called the ARPAnet and various other radio and satellite networks. The
ARPAnet was an experimental network designed to support military research; in
particular, research about how to build networks that could withstand partial
outages (such as bomb attacks) and still function. At about the same time the
Internet was coming into being, Ethernet local area networks ("LANs")
were developed. Most of these workstations came with Berkeley UNIX, which
included IP (Internet Protocol) networking software. This created a new demand:
rather than connecting to a single large timesharing computer per site,
organizations wanted to connect the ARPAnet to their entire local network. The
demand keeps growing today. Now that most four-year colleges are connected to
the Net, people are trying to get secondary and primary schools connected.
People who have graduated from college where they have used the resources of the
Net in classes, know what the Internet is good for, and talk their employers
into connecting different corporations. All this activity points to continued
growth, networking problems to solve, evolving technologies, and job security
for net-workers (Willmott 107). The Internet can also be compared to a church.
In many ways the Internet is like a church: it has its council of elders, every
member has an opinion about how things should work, and they can either take
part or not. It's the choice of the user. The Internet has no president, chief
operating officer, or Pope. The constituent networks may have presidents and
CEO's, but that's a different issue; there is no single authority figure for the
Internet as a whole. As stated by Frances Hentoff, the staff writer for The
Village Voice and the author of First Freedoms, "on an info superhighway
driven by individuals, there are no cops preventing users from downloading"
(Hentoff 1). Internet users can broadcast or express anything they want. The
fact that the Net has no single authority figure sets forth a problem about what
kind of materials could be available on the Net. The U.S. government is now
trying to pass bills to prevent misuse of the Net. The Internet Censorship Bill
of 1995, which has already been discussed earlier, was introduced to the U.S.
Congress. Under the Censorship Bill, a person breaks the law if he/she puts a
purity test on a web page without making sure children cannot access the page.
Also, if a person verbally assaults someone on IRC, he/she breaks the law. If a
university, where some students may be under 18 years old, carries the*
newsgroups, which contains adult material, it breaks the law. According to
George Melloan from the Wall Street Journal, a censorship bill was passed by the
Senate 84-16 in July, and an anticensorship bill was passed by the House 420-4
in August. There are now four different sets of censorship and anticensorship
language in the House and Senate versions of the Telecomm reform bill, which
contradict each other and will have to be reconciled (Melloan, n.p.). In order
to understand the need for the ever-growing body of legislation, it is important
to explore the controversy, and the current problems involved with the Net as it
exists must be introduced. The problem that concerns most people is offensive
material such as pornography. As pointed out by Allison and Baxter,
"Possible (offensive) topics are behavior (drugs, ... ), nudity,
political/economic/social opinion, violence, racial/ethnic, religious, coarse
language, sexual/gender orientation, [and] sexuality" (Allison and Baxter
3). Since the Internet is open to everyone, children are very easily exposed to
such material. According to Allison and Baxter, "the information provided
on the Internet, particularly through the WWW, ranges across train time-tables,
university lecture notes, books, art exhibits, film promotions, the wisdom and
ravings of individuals and, yes, pornographic pictures" (Allison and Baxter
3). Moreover, many high schools in the United States provide Internet access to
students, which is very useful for looking up information, but if a student
intends to look for inappropriate material, he/she is very likely to find such
material simply by doing an Internet search. Another crucial Internet crime is
the theft of credit card numbers. Companies do business on the Net, and credit
card numbers are stored on their servers; everyone with the necessary computer
knowledge could hack in and obtain such databases for illegal purposes. To cite
an instance, the most infamous computer terrorist, Kevin Mitnick, "waived
extradition and is now in jail in California, charged with computer fraud and
illegal use of a telephone access device. The list of allegations against him
include theft of many files and documents, including twenty-thousand credit card
numbers from Netcom On-Line Services, which provides thousands with access to
the Internet" (Warren 52). Americans have to come up with a solution in
order to keep children away from inappropriate material and to prevent misuses
of the Net. One reaction to this inapplicability has been the "Censor the
Net" approach (the censorship bill), which is being debated worldwide.
First, the meaning of "Censoring the Net" must be explained. Simply,
it is the banning of offensive material. To see if the government should censor
the Net, it is imperative to list the advantages and disadvantages of the
"censor the Net" approach. The advantage of government censorship is
that ideally, children and teenagers could be kept away from unsuitable
material. However, many experts have pointed out that government censorship is
not possible. Howard Rheingold, the editor of the Whole World Review, observes
that, "the 'censor the Net' approach is not just morally misguided. It's
becoming technically and politically impossible" (Rheingold n.p.). First,
it is not fair to exclude the freedom and damage the atmosphere of freely
expressing ideas just for the safety of children. Corn-Revere, an expert on
Internet censorship at the Howgan & Harson Law Firm, points out that
"the purpose of indecency regulation is to keep adult material from falling
into the hands of kids. When he first introduced a similar bill last year,
Senator Exon said he was concerned that the Information Superhighway was in
danger of becoming an electronic 'red light district' and that he wanted to bar
his granddaughter's access to unsuitable information" (Corn-Revere 24). It
is clear that Senator Exon introduced the bill to prevent minors from viewing
unsuitable material on the Net. In addition, Meleedy, a computer science
graduate student at Harvard University, questions that if "the Internet
makes democracy this accessible to the average citizen, is it any wonder
Congress wants to censor it?" (Meleedy 1) Allison and Baxter assert that,
"the most significant new properties of the Internet media are the
diversity of information sources and their ability to reach almost anywhere in
the world. Authors range from major corporations such as IBM and Disney to
school children" (Allison and Baxter 3). As predicted by Corn-Revere,
"At the very least, the law will force content providers to make access
more difficult, which will affect all users, not just the young"
(Corn-Revere 70). Censoring the Net is technically and politically impossible;
it will damage the atmosphere of freedom and free idea expression on the Net;
therefore, government should not encourage censorship. Most Internet users are
enjoying their freedom of speech on the Net, which is supposed to be protected
by the First Amendment of the United States. According to Corn-Reverse, "it
has been suggested that, 'on-line systems give people far more genuinely free
speech and free press than ever before in human history'" (Corn-Reverse
71). Rheingold predicts that "Heavy-handed attempts to impose restrictions
on the unruly but incredibly creative anarchy of the Net could kill the spirit
of cooperative knowledge-sharing that makes the Net valuable to millions" (Rheingold
n.p.). The freedom of idea expression is what makes the Internet important and
enjoyable, and it should not be waived for any reason. Additionally, only a very
small portion of the Net contains offensive material, most people do not use the
Net for pornography. Caragata from Maclean's magazine observes that, "it is
pornography that stirs the most controversy. But while there is no doubt that
pornography is popular, it amounts to a trickle compared with everything else
available on the Net" (Caragata 51). The Net is mostly being used for
communication and information exchange, and only a tiny portion of the Net
contains pornography and other offensive material. It must be understood that
censoring the Net is technically impossible. According to Allison and Baxter,
"in principle, it is impossible to monitor all material being transmitted
on the Internet. Considering the difficulties with international boundaries, a
licensing system faces many obvious practical hurdles" (Allison and Baxter
6). As described by Allison and Baxter, "Any good Computer Science graduate
can create a completely secure encryption system for concealment purposes. The
material can even be disguised, for example hidden 'inside' a perfectly
innocuous picture" (Allison and Baxter 6). Therefore, if a person wants to
publish offensive material, he/she can design a formula to change the material
with respect to a key, and secretly tell other users what the key is. In this
way, they can retrieve the same material and pass through the government
censorship. While people are concerned about Internet pornography, it should be
recognized that pornography is sometimes legal; for example, pornography is
legal in video and magazines. Therefore, it is inconsistent to ban the Internet
equivalents. According to Rheingold, "Citizens should have the right to
restrict the information-flow into their homes. They should be able to exclude
from their home any subject matter that they do not want their children to see.
But sooner or later, their children will be exposed to everything from which
they have shielded them , and then they will have left to deal with these
shocking sights and sound in the moral fiber they helped them cultivate" (Rheingold
n.p.). The Internet is definitely not the only medium for teenagers to find
inappropriate material. Even if the Net does not have any, teenagers could also
be exposed to indecorous material in many other places. For example, Allison and
Baxter say that, "most authors using electronic media do not produce
material that is any 'worse' than that available from news agents, video shops,
or mail-order sources" (Allison and Baxter 8). On that account, if the
purpose of censoring is to prevent minors from being exposed to indecorous
material, not only the Net has to be censored. Censoring the Net will only
eliminate one single medium for minors to find irrelevant material. Government
censorship is not the solution to the problem, and alternatives measures that
have same effects as censorship can be practiced. There are many alternative
measures to government censorship which would prevent misuse of the Net and
would have the same effects as censorship. According to Hentoff, "there are
ways to protect children without the Act's intervention: blockage of certain
areas, passwords, parental supervision. And adults--under protection of the
First Amendment--can remain protected from government thought control. However,
if the censorship bill is passed, the First Amendment may effectively be
excluded from cyberspace" (Hentoff 1). It is very important for parents to
provide moral guidance for their children, and parents should have this
responsibility. Moral guidance is the foremost long-term solution to the
problem. Rheingold believes that, "this technological shock (pornography on
the Net) to Americans' moral codes means that in the future, Americans are going
to have to teach their children well. The only protection that has a chance of
working is to give their sons and daughters moral grounding and some common
sense" (Rheingold n.p.). In America, minors can be exposed to sexual
material in many media. Providing children with moral guidance is the foremost
solution to the problem. However, at the same time that parents carry out moral
guidance, Americans have to come out with some short term approaches to solve
the problem in a more efficient way as well. An alternative to government
censorship is the technological fix, which would prevent misuse of the Net and
would have the same effects as government censorship. This involves the design
of intelligent software to filter information. There is a rush to develop
information filtering software and get it to market. One example of
technological fix is the "SurfWatch" software, as described by Allison
and Baxter, "SurfWatch is a breakthrough software product which helps
parents deal with the flood of sexual material on the Internet. By allowing
parents to be responsible for blocking what is being received at any individual
computer, children and others have less chance of accidentally or deliberately
being exposed to unwanted material. SurfWatch is the first major advance in
providing a technical solution to a difficult issue created by the explosion of
technology. SurfWatch strives to preserve Internet freedom by letting
individuals choose what they see" (Allison, Baxter 6). The SurfWatch vendor
intends to provide monthly updates to cope with the fast changing Internet.
Also, commercial Internet service providers, such as "America Online",
allow parents to control what Internet relay chat (IRC) sessions are available
to their children (Cidley 59). Parental Control is a feature in many commercial
Internetservice providers, users can turn on the Parental Control function, and
they will automatically be kept away from offensive words in IRC. In this way,
children can be kept away from offensive material and adults can continue to
enjoy their Internet freedom. Another technological fix is for parents and
guardians to have a separate "proxy server" for their children's web
browser. A "proxy server" is a program that disallows uses of some
specified Internet sites or Usenet newsgroups. The parents need to actively
select sites their proxy server can access. Parental control tools is a very
possible solution to the problem, as stated in the "Communications Decency
Act Issues Page" by the Center for Democracy and Technology, "what
will help parents control their children's access to the Internet is Parental
Control tools and features, such as those provided by several major online
services and available as over-the-counter software" ("Stop the
Communications ..." n.p.). Tools for controlling Internet access by
children are widely available, and parents can already control their children's
access to the material on the Net. There are no computer programs to
automatically and reliably classify material; only people can do it. As a
result, while practicing technological fixes, the classification of the contents
of the material when posting is very important. Nowadays, most Internet users
classify their postings with standard categories, and leave signatures at the
end of postings. According to Allison and Baxter, "items are signed with a
secure digital signature that can be traced to a real person, company or
organization" (Allison, Baxter 4). The strengths of the material are often
classified as "strong" or "weak", and attitudes of a given
document towards a topic are often classified as "advocates",
"discusses", "deplores", or "does not discuss".
Additionally, in order to reduce the effort of classifying many individual
items, particularly in the case of FTP and WWW, classifications are often
attached to directories and inherited by subdirectories and documents. In this
way, readers can make informed decisions regarding access of Internet material,
and the programming of intelligent software will be much easier: just by
recognizing a small number of terms of classification. As a matter of fact, the
classification of material has already been done on the Net for a period of
time. Most Internet materials are well classified, and people will have an idea
of what they are going to see beforehand. For instance, the articles in a
particular Usenet newsgroup can be accurately predicted by the name of the
group. For example, soc.culture.hongkong.entertainment contains discussion of
the entertainment industry of Hong Kong; contains
encoded binary files of dirty pictures. Internet users know what they are
approaching beforehand, and minors know that they are not supposed to browse
those* newsgroups. The combination of the installation of censoring
software and the classification of material is a much better solution than
government censorship. Hentoff mentions that "flexibility of interactive
media...enables parents to control what content their kids have access to, and
leaves the flow of information free for those adults who want it" (Hentoff
1). This prevents unwanted material from reaching children and allows adults to
continue enjoying their Internet freedom. The problem of the Net is that it is
easy for minors to obtain inappropriate materials. The American government came
up with a proposal to censor the Net, but as proved earlier, the "Censor
the Net" approach is both technically and politically impossible. The
foremost solution to the problem is for parents to provide moral guidance for
their children. At the same time they are providing moral guidance for their
children, Americans also need short term technical solution. Intelligent
censoring software and proxy servers can let parents disallow their children
access to certain sites. In this way, parents can keep their children from the
offensive materials on the Net. "Like other dilemmas and unanswered
questions of the digital age, traditional approaches (government censorship)
simply won't work. Americans are going to have to accept less intrusive,
probably more exotic solutions, such as providing intelligent software filters
to those who want a version of Internet Lite [sic]" (Baker 65). For
intelligent software and proxy servers to operate successfully, it is necessary
to classify the information available on the Net, and the classification of
materials has already been done by Internet users for years. Parents can then
censor the Net for their children, and adults can continue to enjoy their
Internet freedom. This will provide the same effect as government censorship,
but will not damage the atmosphere of free idea expression and freedom on the
Net. Moreover, indecorous materials are not only on the Net, minors can obtain
such materials without accessing the Internet at all. Internet censorship is not
the solution to keeping minors away from sexual material. The real and foremost
solution to preventing minors from viewing sexual material is for parents to
take a stronger role in their children's viewing. "This technological shock
(pornography on the Net) to Americans' moral codes means that in the future,
Americans are going to have to teach their children well. The only protection
that has a chance of working is to give their sons and daughters moral grounding
and some common sense" (Rheingold n.p.).

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