Brave New Partners In Internet Censorship

by Solveig Singleton

A few short months ago, the Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment protects the Internet just as it protects booksellers, newspapers and books when it found the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional. That critical ruling signaled censorious governments in countries like Argentina, China, Germany and Zambia that the United States would not provide a precedent for blocking undesirable Internet content.

Yet now the computer industry flirts with technologies of "self-censorship" at a December Internet summit under the guiding hand of the Clinton administration. The summit, called Focus on Children, poses subtle new dangers to free speech on the Internet.

The First Amendment keeps the government out of the business of controlling media content. Private citizens are free to follow their consciences in choosing their own reading material and guiding their children to seek out or avoid certain information. There's no First Amendment objection when a newspaper editor refuses to print an article or when parents take books away from their children, or use a "censorware" program like SurfWatch in their own homes. The private sector is allowed to edit, to exclude and to silence speech). The public sector is not.

But the summit's organizers call for "partnership" between industry and government in keeping "inappropriate" material from children. President Clinton is expected to attend. The summit emerged from a July meeting of President Clinton, Vice President Gore and some of the groups involved in the lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act.

As it blurs the line between public and private, the Focus on Children summit becomes government action disguised as parental action. Filtering software like SurfWatch and the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) -- a computer language standard that allows labels to be attached to Internet content -- are fine as long as they stay in the private sector, driven by customer demand and free choice. There's no need for a summit to make that happen. With nothing better to do, politicians and sensationalists are likely to use the occasion to shine a media spotlight on the dangers of the Internet. Government pressure will make it all the more likely that the computer industry will be unable to resist calls for mandatory PICS or universal filters built into the fabric of the Internet itself.

Disturbingly, the summit's program suggests that free speech rights do not necessarily rank high in the sponsors' priorities. Its sponsors include, for example, the conservative group Enough is Enough; the summit's Web site links to their pro-CDA arguments but not to anti-CDA sites. While some opponents of the CDA are involved, defenders of free speech such as the American Civil Liberties Union are conspicuously absent. Documents promoting the summit describe the CDA as "well intentioned" and note that "supporters and opponents of the CDA agree that children should not have access to inappropriate material on the Internet or in any other medium. The real question is, how best to do it."

The right question is whether government has any proper place at the table discussing any of these issues -- and especially in determining what is "inappropriate." The answer is a resounding no. Furthermore, government involvement is not necessary. The vendors of filtering programs have reason enough to ensure that parents are aware of their products.

Government involvement promotes political, centralized solutions to what should be private problems. The V-chip is a prime example. Before lawmakers chose to mandate V-chips, entrepreneurs and private groups competed to help parents monitor their children's viewing habits, offering dozens of different blocking technologies as well as ratings and reviews of programs from diverse perspectives. Now the monopoly V-chip threatens to shoulder those offerings out of the picture.

Freedom of speech on the Internet offers hope to millions of people around the world who live under political regimes that stifle their access to information. But the Internet's freedom depends on its technology. Politicians should be ashamed to set a precedent in this country by pressuring the industry to engineer this freedom out. We do not need a V-chip for the Internet any more than we need a rating system for libraries or bookstores.

Solveig Singleton is the director of information studies at the Cato Institute.