Congress errs as 'Net censor


In February, residents of the predominantly Republican town of Holland, Mich., were faced with a local ballot measure that would have required Internet content filters (like Cyber Patrol and SurfControl) to be installed on the town librarys public computers to protect children from harmful material on the Internet. The proposed ordinance drew $42,000 in pro-filter campaign money contributed by two noted conservative groups, the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Despite the well-funded push for filters, however, Hollands residents decided against mandatory library filtering, defeating the ballot measure by a 55-to-45 percent margin.


Federal Control

Incredibly, a number of congressional Republicans, who presumably favor local control of public schools and libraries, are now proposing legislation that would effectively overturn the local and democratic decision of Hollands citizens.

Hidden among the massive appropriations in a multibillion-dollar Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill (H.R. 4577) is an amendment known as the Childrens Internet Protection Act, which was introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and others. The amendment would require that all public schools and libraries receiving federal funds in support of Internet access install some form of filtering software to block access to content deemed inappropriate for minors. The Federal Communications Commission would be empowered to monitor compliance, thus becoming the de facto national censor.

Unreliable technology

Countless studies by groups like the Censorware Project, Peacefire, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Consumer Reports have shown that filters fail to block a substantial amount of Internet pornography and, at the same time, often block access to perfectly legitimate information. For example, a recent Censorware Project analysis of popular filtering program Bess revealed that the program failed to block pornographic sites like hardcoresex.com and freexxxpictures.com, while it inexplicably blocked sites like Friends of Lulu, a Web site that promotes the idea that girls read comic books too.

Many studies of filtering software have also found a not-so-subtle political bias, with some filters blocking access to sites like the National Organization for Women and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. But filters dont just block liberal sites; they have also been found to block the home page of the pro-filter American Family Association and filter supporter Rep. Dick Armeys conservative Freedom Works Web site, the latter presumably because of the House majority leaders shortened first name.

Indeed, late last month a commission created by Congress to study ways of protecting children from potentially harmful Internet content produced a report that intentionally did not endorse mandatory school and library filtering. The report concluded that this technology raises First Amendment concerns because of its potential to be overinclusive in blocking content.

Fortunately, a number of effective and constitutional alternatives to filters like Internet education classes, privacy screens and acceptable use policies exist for local public school and library boards to choose from. Roughly 95 percent of our public libraries already have policies outlining appropriate uses of library Internet resources. Unfortunately, these local decisions are now on the verge of being overturned by politicians in Washington.

Given the practical and constitutional problems associated with filters, congressional Republicans would be well advised to drop their foolish filtering amendment, and keep decisions about how to best protect children where they belong with local public schools and libraries. The people of Holland, Mich., should be allowed to decide this matter for themselves.

Christopher Hunter is a Ph.D. student in the Annenberg School for Communication. A version of this column ran in Salon.com last month.

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Originally published on November 9, 2000