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Internet filtering would censor harmless and helpful information

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By ROBYN BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


The relentless effort by government to censor the Internet has met with a little hitch: people with principles.

Like a hapless suitor, the U.S. Department of Justice has been trolling libraries and the halls of academe trying to enlist critics of Internet filtering to join its defense of the Child Online Protection Act -- a law that makes it a crime for universally accessible commercial Web sites to publish anything "harmful to minors."

But rather than acceptances, the department is getting door slams.

"As a librarian, my first impulse was to agree to testify," Karen Schneider, an expert on Internet filters at the Shenendehowa Public Library, wrote in response to the invitation. "However, after reviewing . . . the government's intent with respect to COPA, I realized that testifying . . . would actually be in conflict with my professional responsibility."

Schneider went on to explain how COPA would be far more damaging to freedom than any filtering software: "I believe the true danger to children would not come from exposing them to an unfettered information medium . . . The greater harm would come from weakening the First Amendment to the point where children would grow up to become adults in a shrunken, compromised democracy, deprived of the freedoms we now enjoy."

COPA was passed by Congress in 1998 after the Communications Decency Act was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court because it violated the free speech rights of adults. COPA, however, is no improvement. The law makes it a crime for commercial sites with "harmful" themes to allow access to anyone under 17 -- effectively turning the free Internet into one giant children's book.

In defending this piece of heavy-handed legislative censorship, the department has found itself in an odd pickle. Currently, the COPA legal challenge is before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals awaiting a ruling on an injunction. But if the case returns to the district court in Philadelphia for a trial, the department will need to show that blocking software is utterly ineffective in order to prove that a broad criminal law is the only reasonable means available of protecting children.

That's because courts routinely strike down limits on the dissemination of information unless the government can show it has used the "least restrictive means" to accomplish its goal. If filtering software effectively blocks "harmful" material from children's eyes, then a criminal law like COPA is unnecessary and unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, just across the mall, Congress has been touting Internet filtering as the best weapon against children viewing pornography since the plain brown wrapper. At least four bills pending in Congress pressure schools and libraries to install filtering software. If any of them pass, the department will likely be tapped to defend it.

Can government officials have it both ways? Can they laud filtering and dis it in the same breath?

Why not? When has hypocrisy, disingenuousness, or double-speak ever pricked the conscience of our public servants? Not surprising, the department wouldn't comment. No attorney would return calls about the case.

In addition to librarian Schneider, the department has been turned down by filtering opponents John Bowes, an associate professor at the University of Washington, and Christopher Hunter, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on the problems with filters.

These experts understand that while filters are both porous and clunky -- blocking sites on breast cancer and the music group Bare Naked Ladies while not shielding all hard-core pornography -- at least their use is voluntary on the part of parents. A law like COPA excludes individual parental choice and is no more exacting than filters.

COPA won't stop explicit sex sites that emanate from overseas, yet it will keep young people from information on subjects like safe sex, homosexuality and the fine arts.

"Art museums like the Getty or the Museum of Modern Art have virtual galleries online with nudes and semi-nudes," Hunter said. "Will they have to put up an age verification system, so to get into their Web site people will first have to type in their credit card numbers?"

Schneider has similar worries about the way COPA would operate. "Gay teenagers have enough trouble coming to terms with their sexual orientation without finding out that the government has banished information about their very existence into the same realm as cheap pornography," she wrote in a letter to the department. "I do not trust the federal government to allow children access to age-appropriate gay-themed web sites when it cannot stomach concepts as simple and mundane as an openly gay person serving her country, or two people of the same gender choosing to marry."

In the end it is likely the attorneys at the department will find someone, somewhere to testify that filters don't do the job -- someone whose principles are as maleable as theirs.

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