Should The Internet Be Censored Or Screened

Should The Internet Be Censored Or Screened To Protect Users Essay, Research Paper

Should the Internet Be Censored or Screened to Protect Users?

Right now hundreds of thousands of people have just sat down in front of a computer. After brief negotiation of something called a mouse, these same people will be transported into a realm of virtually unlimited possibilities. Beep . . . beep . . . pulse . . . waiting almost there, wham! connection. To clarify, this is not a transcription of the latest episode on the Sci-fi channel, rather, this description friends, encompasses the Internet. What appears to be one of the most influential advancements of human kind, possibly since sliced bread, is not without controversy. While the Internet is a place in which people from all walks of life are recognized, it is also a place that has perpetuated the ease in which objectionable materials are accessed. As a result of the indecent materials present on the Internet, some people believe that censorship should be enacted to protect viewers, while the opposition believes that any type of government mandated censorship would challenge America’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Although this complex issue having ethical, legal, and technical aspects involves all users of the Internet, specific groups have voiced concern. Education systems (schools, colleges, libraries), various work places, and ordinary American homes are places where Internet use is becoming increasingly commonplace, furthermore, Internet censorship would positively or negatively affect all of these groups in some way. Whereas you will see problems arise from extreme and moderate approaches to governmental censorship, I believe a modified method of individual screening or monitoring, lending the responsibility to parents and employers, rather than the government, would be the more acceptable approach.

In the infancy of this issue, before the Communications Decency Act had been enacted and later annulled, concern was mounting from the worldwide integration of the Internet and its possible repercussions. Specifically, as the Internet is implemented into education systems throughout America, questions are being raised. While the Internet continues to advance scholarly communication and promote academic research and discovery, the Internet is also allowing seamier materials to be accessed with ease. Stephen Bates in “The Next Front in the Book Wars,” points to certain indecent Web pages devoted entirely to destructive, unlawful, and misleading material, of which is open to anyone no matter what age. Some of the questionable material on Internet pages includes instructions on how to short circuit schools, how to devise bombs and explosives, and how someone might go about killing his or her self (547). Years ago, and even today, a school’s library could discriminate from questionable materials by not purchasing them (547). The Internet has changed the rules. Libby Black, director of a school district’s Internet project says the question of bringing the Internet into public schools is “essentially all or nothing (548).” This is because “the Net interprets censoring as damage and routes around it (548),” said John Gilmore, an activist for freedom of speech in Cyberspace.

Upon the passage of the Communication Decency by congress in 1996, attempting to banish pornography and other such indecent materials from the Internet, there were immediate questions raised concerning whether or not parts of the First Amendment were being threatened. Jeffrey R. Young in “Indecency on the Internet: Censorship of Student and College

Web Pages,” speaks of academia’s concern under this law’s provisions. Among commercial pornographic evidence that the U.S. Justice Department presented as indecent material on the Internet, were Web sites published by students at four universities. As a result, the question of responsibility in these circumstances has created some trepidation. Who would be held liable here, the student or the university creating Web space? Cautious universities worry that they are going to be forced to screen everything that is posted by students. However, by the sheer volume of materials on the Internet, this may be impractical (552). Other organizations similarly voiced concern at the wide range of materials that could be targeted under the C.D.A.. Would anthropological or archeological collections on the Web, with some forms of nudity be targeted as indecent? The reply was “yes” (553). Dan R. Olsen, Jr., from the Justice Department, explained that a rating system would give Internet users and providers, some kind of protection from prosecution under the law (553). However, even some art museum Web pages would be targeted as indecent under this “tagging” method.

Four months after the Communications Decency Act was enacted, it was declared unconstitutional by three Federal Judges. By looking at the reasoning behind the judges’ decision, one can further understand the complicated nature of Internet censorship. Stewart Dalzell, one of the three judges who declared the C.D.A. unconstitutional, published an opinion article describing the reasoning behind his decision. According to Judge Dalzell, the definition of the Internet is a “speech-enhancing medium,” and a “never ending worldwide conversation,” where government censorship in the form of the C.D.A. would most certainly interrupt that conversation, and in essence, dishonor First Amendment Rights (554-555). Certain types of censorship regarding the C.D.A. are cited to have been an inevitable failure. This is because, one half of all Internet communication originates outside the United States. The idea of censoring all indecent materials on the Internet is very unreasonable considering that individuals in countries other than America comprise a large percentage of the people hosting indecent Web pages. Conclusively, the United States could not enforce individuals from other countries to abide by the C.D.A.’s provisions (554).

While the concern for freedom of expression in colleges and various other institutions was no longer in question as a result of the C.D.A.’s repeal, other organizations such as work places feared that indecent materials that are easily accessible on the Internet, are going to make things very complicated. Trip Gabriel in, “New Issue at Work: On-line Sex Site,” explains that specifically in the work place, there are problems regarding indecent use of the Internet that could be seen as a form of sexual harassment. A recent survey collected data that indicated that employees from such companies as Apple Computer, AT&T, NASA, and Hewlett-Packard, called up the on-line magazine, Penthouse, thousands of times a month (556). The problem here is that the “surfing” of such cites as Penthouse could create an uncomfortable and humiliating atmosphere for some colleagues (556). As a result, some companies have had to update their sexual harassment policies regarding the viewing of explicit cites at the office. However, this redefining has not been very easy: surfing sex sites falls in the same “grey,” area of sexual harassment as does hanging pin-ups in a cubicle (556).

It seems conflict arises on the two extreme sides of this issue. Evidence for this is implicit in the opposition resulting directly after the C.D.A was enacted and repealed. Although government mandated censorship is out of the picture, a compromise can be reached when recognizing that there are many options readily available to the government, parents, and employers, in enforcing and influencing certain aspects of the Internet. Options that the government still has in influencing the Internet are best described in Judge Dalzell’s own words:

The Government can continue to protect children from pornography on the Internet through vigorous enforcement of existing laws criminalizing obscenity and child pornography . . . there is also a compelling need for public education about the benefits and dangers of this new medium, and the government can fill that role as well (554).

Parents also have options available to protect young viewers from harmful materials. Acquiring blocking software to exclusively restrict a home computer’s available materials on it is one idea (554-555). Likewise, work places could have similar options. Employers, as cited by Gabriel have already implemented software programs such as Surf Watch (first introduced to screen materials to avoid children viewing), to alleviate some problems with indecent Internet use (558).

The Internet indeed is raising a lot of questions, one of which is the obvious problem that there is an ease in which indecent materials can be accessed. Mandated government censorship, as discussed by Dalzell is an inevitable failure. My hope is that it is explicitly clear that this issue is not black and white, rather, that there is an obvious difficulty in accepting either the moderate or extreme view of this issue. In the absence of mandated censorship, I have shown that there are many options readily available to government officialdom, parents, and employers, of which can exclusively reject or monitor indecency, while also encouraging widespread benefits of the Internet. While this is an issue that is very complex in legal, technical, and ethical aspects, much attention is needed for a compromise to be reached.

Works Cited

Bates, Stephen. “The Next Front in the Book Wars.” New York Times 6 November 1994: 22-23

Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 547-550.

Dalzell, Stewart. “Excerpt From Judge Dalzell’s Opinion Against Internet Decency Law.” New York Times 13 June 1996: A18 Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 547-550.

Gabriel, Trip. “New Issue at Work: On-line Sex Sites.” New York Times 27 June 1996: B1+

Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 547-550.

Young, Jeffrey R. “Indecency on the Internet: Censorship of Student and College Web Pages.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 26 April 1996: A21 Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 547-550.


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