Help, I’m Being Oppressed

       On nights when I can’t
quite get my information fix from the Internet, I like to walk down to
a local store that sells hundreds of different magazines and newspapers.
Because I am interested in computer games but not knitting, the proprietor
of the store has been kind enough to arrange the magazines by content,
so I never end up leafing through art magazines when what I really want
are the latest Quake II screenshots. The store also shelves sexually explicit
magazines together in one area and behind a glass partition.

       I always thought this was
an excellent scheme, but according to the hyperbole floating around the
Internet these days, this amounts to censorship.

       The whole brouhaha centers
around web blocking software. Often wrongly justified as an alternative
to government censorship, blocking software simply prevents a user from
accessing certain sites. The idea is to keep children from venturing into
areas that contains inappropriate content.

       Of course there are critics
who think that in itself is wrong. Jon Katz at HotWired argued earlier
in the year that essentially parents had no right to stifle their children’s
creative impulses. If your 15-year-old wants to check out the leather
S&M sites, who the hell are you to stop them? Although I probably
should make a long-winded reasoned argument against Katz’s position,
I’ll merely note that I hope Katz never runs into one of these creatively
free juveniles in a dark alley.

       But for the most part people
don’t disagree that keeping children from “adult” sites
is a bad idea. What they worry about is that the software and techniques
will spill over into the adult world. Unfortunately these arguments end
up being hopelessly confused about censorship.

Barbs for Barr

       Christopher Barr, a CNET columnist
with whom I rarely agree, found this out when he wrote a column proposing
a solution to a common problem with ratings systems for web sites. The
idea behind ratings systems is to have groups propose various rating systems
and then allow people with web sites to rate their content appropriately.

       The problem, of course, is
that ratings are like using nuclear weapons for fishing — rarely do you
get very precise targeting. As many critics have pointed out, if web ratings
are applied consistently, news sites would largely be blocked because
they carry stories involving violence or coverage of controversies over
sex and pornography.

       Even parents who might not
want their child visiting the S&M leather site might not want software
to block CNN’s website simply because it covers a controversy about
such a site. Barr advocates essentially creating a special exemption for
news web sites. As Barr puts it, “we feel that bonafide news sites
should be subject to different criteria.”

       There’s only one real
question — what counts as a “real” news site? In his hilariously
whiney complaint about this approach for The Netly News, Joshua
Quittner notes that the skin magazine “Screw” runs reviews of
adult videos. Doesn’t that make it a news site? (Yeah and next Quittner
will argue Netly News isn’t another boring corporate site
trying to pass itself off as technologically astute).

       The replies to Barr’s
columns are amusing. Declan McCullagh at Netly News complains
that repressive governments could use rating systems and blocking software
to ban controversial speech. Yeah and repressive governments could throw
books in a fire, but that’s not much of an argument against combustion.

       Barr doesn’t help his
case either by trying to take the moral high road. If he were honest he
would just admit the main problem his critics have with the system. Regardless
of what the final implementation of a news rating is, it will be largely

But that’s fine

       And those busybodies who have
a problem with this should mind their own business. Look, if the Wall
Street Journal and Playboy an CNET and others want to get together and
decide amongst themselves who is and is not a real news site, more power
to them. If they can convince companies to include blocking features in
software which can block non-news sites which contain violence or other
contest, go for it.

       See there’s a simple
fundamental liberty called freedom of association. If a group of companies
want to get together and tell us their opinions — which is essentially
what a ratings system does — and then browsers give us the ability to
base our children’s browsing on those opinions, it’s none of
the American Civil Liberties Union’s business.

       The notion that this is censorship
is ludicrous. One of the comments Barr mentions from a reader is “If
someone else decides who runs a news site, isn’t it still censorship?”
No, of course not. If you believe, as I do, that this whole ratings system
is silly, don’t use it. Don’t install blocking software on your
computer, don’t activate it in your browsers and put up a rude web
site ripping on the Internet Content Coalition.

       But the point is you have
a choice. The Internet Content Coalition isn’t censoring anyone —
if you don’t agree with them simply don’t use programs which
use their criteria. Don’t label or rate your site. Get over it.

The Traditional Media

       The main problem the “censorship”
crowd has with this arrangement is they seem to think nothing akin to
it exists for other media. One of the people Barr quotes claims, “Since
the Supreme Court said the online world should be as free as print, and
no self-labeling system exists for magazines or newspapers, why should
the Net be any different?”

       While newspapers and magazines
don’t label themselves for the most part, third parties do come in
all the time and rate them. When I go to the magazine store, for example,
the proprietor often has the New York Times and Washington
on a table with newspapers. The Village Voice, however,
is stuck back in a corner closer to magazines of political opinion. Similarly
glossy and questionable publications dealing with the Wild West are shelved
with fan magazines rather than with reputable history periodicals. New
Age and alternative medicine periodicals are kept separate from serious
medical and scientific journals.

       Each of these decisions involves
a third party coming along and essentially deciding what sort of magazine
or newspaper each periodical is and then arbitrarily placing it in its
area. If I objected to this — say I wanted all magazines shelved alphabetically
or perhaps I want to be able to find “Hustler” and “Sports
Illustrated! Kids” next to one another, I am always free to simply
purchase my magazines elsewhere.

       As Barr notes, “the success
of any self-rating and filtering system depends on how well it works and
how it’s accepted and used.” While parents might want their
kids not to see the adult sites, very few people I know run blocking software
to prevent themselves from having full access to the web. But if large
numbers of adults want to let a small coalition decide what they see and
here that’s fine — it’s their choice.

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