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Justices Put Access to Online Information in the Wrong Hands

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Supreme Court gives Congress free rein to force libraries to apply filters to block access to Internet pornography or lose federal funding

Media consumers are in such a rush, they need complex social issues boiled down in simple terms. Pro-choice vs. pro-life. Pro-gun vs. gun control. Anti-porn vs. free speech. But these issues impact the lives of citizens on a complex maze of levels, many that remain invisible to the masses, even though the stuff is happening right down the street.

For example, when the U.S. Supreme Court  ruled on June 23 that Congress can force libraries to install software filters to block obscene or pornographic material or lose federal funding, most people likely reacted with a shrug of the shoulders and thought:  "Hey, I get Net access at home or at work, and see whatever I want when I want it. The schools already filter what my kids see online, and my library does the same. What of it?"

On the top level, there's some validity to this point of view. Filtering software is imperfect, blocking legitimate, non-pornographic sites on the subjects of health and sex education, homosexuality and even foreign-language sites. But mom or dad can adjust the filters at home for less rigorous blocking. The problem is at all the various schools and libraries throughout the country. Who polices these software controls? Anyone with an agenda.

On the gnat level, you've got a million and one stories on what local libraries are doing right now. A Google News search yesterday brought up 554 stories on the subject, much of it by local outlets reporting on libraries down the street. Surprisingly, many libraries are unaffected by the ruling, because they are already using filters or are willing to forgo funding (if it's small enough) in a stand on principle -- that being open access to the Net.

But Chicago-area librarian Jenny Levine, who runs The Shifted Librarian Weblog, wasn't thrilled with the ruling. "Dangling that money in front of (librarians) in return for censoring what their adult patrons can access is obscene," she told me in an e-mail. "These politicians and justices should be ashamed of themselves for forcing a public institution that serves 'every' member of its community to remove valuable information from their grasp. It's literally removing cornerstones of democracy when Illinois library users can't access Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin's sites because of a censorship filter."

But why legislate filtering, when you have the Washington County Library in southern Utah already filtering for 24 categories: "sex, adult content, alcohol, chat, drugs, gambling, games, hate, illegal activities, lingerie, loopholes, bulletin boards, murder/suicide, nudity, personal information, pornography, profanity, cheating in school, offensive terms, tobacco, violence, weapons, free Web page hosts and tasteless/gross sites." No wonder the library has received requests to unblock sites every week, according to The Spectrum, in St. George, Utah.

What's getting blocked

The quick-fix view in the U.S. is that we want to protect our children from the evils online (whatever vague notion that is), and we want to push a button to do it. Forget actually spending time with our children, or having teachers or librarians check what kids are doing in person. The Net filter is the Holy Grail in fighting porn despite its obvious flaws -- and great difficulty in applying community standards of decency off the shelf.

"The ruling is a real blow to Internet freedom," said Ronald K.L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center run by Freedom Forum. "It also runs contrary to the notion that libraries are to provide our citizenry with full information, not filtered information. This new brand of censorship was certainly not necessary to protect children from pornography; there were more reliable and less censorial methods Congress could have selected to protect our children."

Blocking legitimate Web sites for minors is bad, but blocking these same sites for adults is even worse, which led to the American Library Association's suit in the first place. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Online Policy Group released a study that coincided with the Supreme Court decision, showing just how much gets blocked by the top two filters, N2H2's Bess and SurfControl. The study focused on a broad number of subjects that a student might research online.

"We found that for every page blocked correctly, filters block one or more pages inappropriately," said Will Doherty, EFF's media relations director. "We thought a lot of pages would be blocked because of ideological views of the software companies -- and they were -- but what surprised us were the random pages that were blocked for seemingly no reason. There was a punctuation site blocked, and a theater arts site blocked. We don't know why."

David Burt, spokesman for N2H2, said he hadn't looked through the entire EFF study, but said it might have taken an overly broad view. Burt noted that Web site publishers can check the software company's online database to see if they are improperly categorized, and then request that it be unblocked. "Sometimes there are problems with sites sharing a server with pornography sites," he told me. "It depends on the content and the situation."

I did a quick check of the N2H2 database, and found that gay interest site PlanetOut is categorized as pornography, while one of its sites, Gay.com, is categorized under chat, news, personals, recreation/entertainment, and sex. When I brought this to N2H2's attention, they reclassified the top PlanetOut site as having no rating, but kept the pornography block for the section selling adult videos. They changed Gay.com's rating to a "sex" category, meaning the entire site is unavailable if the software is blocking "sex." PlanetOut said it is looking into N2H2's ratings.

N2H2's Burt likes to point to a Kaiser Foundation study on filtering that showed that N2H2 blocked the highest percentage of pornographic sites compared to competing filters. But that study has a much more sobering finding on filter settings: While the amount of pornography caught at different levels doesn't vary much, the amount of legit health sites blocked goes from 1.4 percent (least restrictive level) to 24 percent (most restrictive level). Kaiser  concluded that the settings libraries and schools use is more important than the filtering product used.

Going further

The filtering issue is too complex for the federal government to comprehend, despite its leadership in passing laws condoning use of the software. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services operates a plethora of Web sites on issues of health education, domestic violence and even more than 1,000 pages referring to "safe sex." EFF's Doherty says that .gov sites indeed get blocked by filters too.

But Bill Hall, an HHS spokesman, was slow to see that this might be a problem for his agency, and told me that he had never seen or used a software filter. "We don't take a stance on the ruling," he said. "Sure, it's a common problem among health info sites, getting blocked by filters. But it's up to the filter companies and libraries to fix them, not us. We've never been aware of people not seeing our sites. If there were angry letters or people telling us about it, then we'd look at the issue."

Of course, many people who are blocked from sites don't know what they're missing. But perhaps they can get restitution. EFF's Doherty said free speech advocates still have a couple of legal options. "A real person might go into a library and get upset that the filter software can't be easily turned off," he said. "Then that person could bring a suit against the government. Or Web publishers could bring a suit saying the public's access to their material was abridged by the government blocking it."

Are there enough sites blocked to make a difference? The EFF study shows that tens of thousands of legitimate sites were wrongly blocked by filtering programs, making them all possible litigants in a class-action suit. Jeff Titterton, vice president of consumer services for PlanetOut, said the site would consider joining such a suit. But as for loss of traffic from the ruling, he doesn't think there will be a significant impact.

The real problem, Titterton said, is lack of access. "The vast majority of filtering systems still block gay and lesbian people from esteem-building and live-saving information resources and community tools," he told me in an e-mail.  

Finally, there's the real ground level action in filtering -- the actions of students and kids. While the grown-ups battle in court and in the media, teens do what teens do best: blow it off. Many students are computer literate and know ways to disable or get around filtering software. And there are thousands of porn sites that go unblocked every day. Peacefire.org offers instructions and free downloadable software for going around filters.

So while a number of parents can exult that they've curbed pornography, kids can continue to see what they want online.

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Related Links
EFF study: Internet Blocking in Schools
FindLaw: U.S. vs. ALA
First Amendment Center
Gay.com
Kaiser: See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information [Acrobat file]
N2H2
N2H2's URL Checker
PeaceFire
PlanetOut
The Spectrum: Libraries abide by strict rules
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