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Copyright © 2003-2005, 2008, 2014 by David E. Ross

The best protection for a child surfing the Web is an attentive, caring parent who not only monitors what the child is doing but also helps the child to learn to distinguish gold from garbage, information from innuendo, and decency from danger. Neither a TV set nor a PC is an acceptable babysitter, something that can be trusted to entertain an unsupervised child.

All of my personal Web pages are unrated. I believe ratings are a stupid attempt to limit the audience for what I have to say.

The government and our elected officials are equally the least qualified to determine what expressions of opinion, art, fact, and entertainment are fit for public experience. A government-coerced rating system is merely an example of such a determination.

I simply refuse to cooperate with a system that requires me to certify that my Web pages are suitable for any particular audience. Instead, let those who want to be appointed censor prove the unsuitability of what I have created (after they take the qualifying quiz). After all, the burden of protecting children from unsuitable Web pages should fall entirely on those who create such garbage and not on those of us whose pages are appropriate for all audiences.

After a deeper analysis, I believe that the real agenda of those who claim they merely want to protect children is the general censorship of what we all experience — children and adults equally. They are offended by what they see and they want to protect the rest of us from being contaminated, without regard for whether we are also offended or want protection. In the end, they would reduce all literature, art, drama, and Web pages to pap suitable for small children. Too often, such individuals suffer from what I call constipated morality and see anything that brings joy and enlightenment to others as sinful.

I am not a small child, and my own children are adults. I am insulted by attempts to impair what I see on the Internet that fail to make allowances for adult audiences.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D, Calif) suggested legislation that somewhat reflects my position described above. He wanted files that are unsuitable for children because of erotic content to contain a header that effectively flags the files for Adults Only. The rest of us — as I proposed above — would not have to do anything. Since Web pages and newsgroup messages can already contain unseen headers, Congressman Sherman's idea only needs a option within Web and newsgroup browsers (password controlled so parents can lock and unlock the option) to prevent the display of such files.

Then you and I would not have to certify anything about our own Web pages. When someone fails to put the restrictive header on a Web page, the government would have to prove that the header was necessary. Rather than a rating system the intrudes into all of our Internet activity, we would have a system that affects only those whose activity really should not involve children.

Congress Sherman's suggestion was never enacted into law.

Finally, we must consider how Internet ratings and the resulting Web browser filters are actually implemented. Too often, the results are arbitrary and subjective, reflecting the personal biases of those who rate Web pages and construct the filters.

For example, America On-Line (AOL) provides "youth filters" for its subscribers so that parents can keep their children from viewing inappropriate materials. CNET News reported, however, that the filters blocked access to political pages for the Democrat, Green, and Reform Parties while allowing access to the Republican, Libertarian, and Constitution Parties. Those same filters blocked access to Web pages for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Safer Guns Now, and the Million Mom March (all promoting gun control) but permitted access to gun manufacturers Colt and Browning and to the National Rifle Association. Although AOL denied it, it seemed quite obvious that a very distinct political slant was implemented in this filter. (Actually AOL blamed The Learning Company, a division of Barbie Doll's Mattel, which developed the algorithm used by the "youth filter". I do not know if AOL still uses this system.)

Despite such defects in filters, Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), requiring public schools, libraries, and other local government agencies that provide Web access to the public to implement filters. Agencies that fail to do so will lose any funds appropriated by Congress. This law was enacted even after a number of politicians — including Congressional incumbents — discovered that their own Web sites for election campaigns were blocked by the two most popular filtering programs. Several politicians who were strong advocates of filtering changed their minds; but Congress enacted the CIPA anyway. In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the CIPA. However, in June 2004, the Supreme Court refused to uphold the more draconian Child Online Protection Act (COPA), sending the case back to a lower court for a determination whether the goals of the COPA could be met with less interference with the rights of adults.

Another report describes how one of the leading filters blocks access to some very important newsgroups, including two that I frequently read: comp.risks and The former gives examples of why we should not place excessive reliance on computers and other technology, including on computer-based filters. The latter (now defunct) consisted of public bulletins from an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security regarding vulnerabilities in computer systems.

At my local Oak Park Library, filters have been installed by the Ventura County Library Services Agency for some computers; the others are "Adults Only". On a filtered computer, I discovered a Web site — <> — that is being blocked. This site has only political content, nothing pornographic or otherwise unsuitable for children. The explanation is that the site's host does not sufficiently censor other sites on its Web server and thus there might be something objectionable on that server. That is, the entire Web server is blocked — not because anything objectionable exists there — but because of an unproven speculation that something objectionable might exist in the future.

In 2014, the government of the United Kingdom decreed that all ISPs must filter Internet content to protect children unless a customer demands that the filter on his or her account be disabled. The result is that many innocuous Web sites are not longer accessible while children still access pornography. The filters simply do not work. In the meantime, many British parents have a false sense of security that their children are now well protected.

Last updated 6 December 2014

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