With newer technology comes a price and with the internet it is our children’s innocence. A huge problem concerning the internet from the time it first began has been the issue of inappropriate material on the internet, a large part of which is child pornography. This has initiated a need for regulation which prevents this kind of material appearing on the internet. Censorship in one form or another is the only way the internet can be saved from becoming a site for offensive and illegal material.
One of the largest problems on the internet is the case of child pornography, which is not only offensive but illegal. This is a global problem and is one of the foundations that governments are using to build their case for censorship. The government and various organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) try to regulate the internet by locating and removing all illegal material on the internet, a big part of which is child pornography. But it is an uphill struggle due to an increasing number of people supplying the material and an increase in demand for it.1
There are various ways in which this offensive material can find it’s way onto the internet. One of the easiest is on a chatline while many people are ‘chatting’ to each other under login names. This process allows a person to login under an assumed name and distribute the illegal material anonomously. This is one of the simplest ways to do this and it is virtually impossible to block. A similar method is anonomous email – where a person can open an email account with a web based server such as hotmail, yahoo, mailcity etc., give a false name and then distribute their material freely through the member directory. This could be disastorous as innocent children who have email addresses on these servers could receive this material for just being on an email directory.
There are also people who construct websites containing child pornography as well as material of another sexual nature and these sites can not always be closed down before they are seen. A child searching for a topic for their homework could accidentally be linked to one of these sites, leading to various pyschological consequences. These sites are not only illegal but could have a jarring effect on many children. If someone requires a site comprised of a sexual nature there should at least be some kind of screening that prevents kids from accessing them accidentally.
Sex is not the only offensive material on the internet, for example, some sites give very detailed step by step instructions on how to construct a bomb. Now it is highly unlikely that someone could get their hands on all the equipment required to construct it, but this knowledge could be just as dangerous. It is material like this which is on the internet for no beneficial reason that sparks the need for censorship. Censoring this damaging material will prevent it being viewed by an inappropriate audience.
However, there are many causes for concern when discussing censorship and many questions are thrown up. Who has the right to be the censor? What information should be censored? Is it actually possible to censor on the world wide web? These are the questions that need to be answered, only then can the process of censorship begin.
A very large obstacle to overcome is the problem of jurisdiction. If a person is using a computer in Atlanta to look at obscene material which is illegal in Atlanta but is on a server in Amsterdam are they actually breaking the law or not? This is where the boundaries have to be defined as to what is and what is not illegal. And it is here that a dispute arises as to who actually has the right to prosecute or block off these sites. Should it be the responsibility of the government of where the site is located or the government of where the site was accessed? Or should the owner of the site be responsible for where the site can be accessed from?
Another problem is pressure from anti-censorship groups such as The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1996 the US government attempted to pass a law against offensive material on the internet in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). But the ACLU sued and last June the Supreme Court decided it contradicted the first amendment protection of free speech and threw it out of Congress. Opposing groups like the ACLU will always be around and therefore a compromise will have to be reached as there will never be complete censorship or complete uncensorship. There will always be people who will feel that they are being deprived of having the choice of what they want to view and therefore they will always try to cheat the system and get access to the uncensored information.
Various attempts have been made to provide solutions to the big problem of the uncensored world wide web. One effort has been the production of various self-censoring programs, for example, Net Nanny, Guard Dog, etc. These programs can be downloaded from the internet or bought in a store and installed on your computer. The parents can then follow the simple instructions and block access to certain sites by selecting different categories, resulting in a safe environment in which their kids can surf the net. But this method puts the responsibility on the parents and often it is the parents that need the guidance around the internet by their computer literate children.
So this solution does not really provide a good way of stopping the offensive material entering the home. Another variation of this type of censoring is ‘Vatican Net’. This is a subscription service which will only let material through which is acceptable by the Pontiff.2 This service again has its own self-appointed censor – the Pontiff – which asks if his approval of sites is really what the public wants. But at least it gives some sort of censorship and does not give access to a no-holds barred internet to an eight year old child.
A system being worked on just now by the IWF is a ratings system, like in the movie industry. A rating eg. PG-13 will be placed before each site is accessed, this rating being put there by the creator of the site. This system does have merit but it could run into problems as the creators have to decide which rating their site deserves and may rate it according to the audience they want to attract or the rating they feel will be most profitable.
Another idea that has been introduced recently in the UK by British Telecom (BT) is a ‘whitelisting service’ called ‘Campus World’. It is an internet subscription service that does not give you access to the whole internet but instead only certain areas. This is aimed at a schooling audience and is being sold as a ‘safe haven’. This is being widely accepted and we probably will be seeing a lot more of these whitelists in the future.3
There is a very strong argument against censorship and many groups oppose the idea of their freedom of choice being taken from them. It is not really a stand-off between free speech and censorship but rather, should or can technology like the internet be censored fairly. If the jurisdictional problem can be solved it is quite possible that the internet could be governed fairly resulting in less offensive material on the internet.
However, one thing is for sure and that is that some type of law needs to be passed as the amount of pornography and offensive material on the internet is increasing everyday. Just last year there were approximately 200 convictions concerning child pornography on the internet.4 Also the IWF received over a thousand complaints concerning offensive material, the majority of which contained child pornography. This matter has to be taken care off otherwise the children of today who are the leaders of tomorrow will end up with a warped sense of society.