Blown To Bits

Protesting a Proposal for a Censored Internet

Thursday, July 24th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Readers of Chapter 7 of Blown to Bits will know some of the story of the U.S. government’s efforts to make the Internet “safe” for children to see by banning from it many things that are legal and appropriate for adults. (We talked about part of this story yesterday, in our post about the COPA legislation.)

Now the FCC has come up with the bright idea of a child-friendly Internet, that is, an Internet where no one could ever say anything that would be “harmful” to children, down to the age of 5. (I mentioned this briefly in a posting a few weeks ago.) No medical images, presumably, of the kind that teenagers from time immemorial have sought out to satisfy their curiosity. No discussions, it would seem, of sexual matters that you would not discuss with your 5-year-old. The standard is so absurd as a weapon to put into the hands of government censors that one has to assume large parts of classical English literature and daily adult discourse would be barred.

The parallel universe the FCC imagines would be created by companies using a block of wireless spectrum. They would be allowed to bid on this block only if they agreed to use part of it to provide free public access to this parallel, child-friendly Internet universe.

The proposal is absurd, and the cyberspace it imagines could not be the Internet. There could presumably be no encryption, for example, else how could the censors be sure whether the data being sent represented a birthday card or a dirty joke in Yoruba? (In fact, how would the censors recognize unencrypted dirty jokes in Yoruba, that a Yoruba-reading child might see?) It seems likely that the FCC’s proposal, if it went into effect, would eventually be ruled unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, just as the government couldn’t ban swearing in Yellowstone National Park on the theory that it was public property and children went there. The FCC proposal is here. The critical passage is on page 26, the stipulation that the network must have technology

That filters or blocks images and text that constitute obscenity or pornography and, in context, as measured by contemporary community standards and existing law,  any images or text that otherwise would be harmful to teens and adolescents.  For purposes of this rule, teens and adolescents are children 5 through 17 years of age

I have joined a number of other Fellows of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society to comment on the FCC proposal (pdf here). This “comment” has a calmer, more measured and nuanced explanation of the stakes than does this intemperate post. Thanks to Wendy Seltzer, Geoff Goodall, and Steve Schultze for carrying the burden of drafting it and of incorporating the hundreds of suggestions they got back.

Persephone Miel has a nice quick summary of our position here.

2 Responses to “Protesting a Proposal for a Censored Internet”

  1. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » John McCain’s Technology Policy Says:

    [...] courts because they unconstitutionally make (a) impossible. And the plan referred to in (c) is the one we blogged about several weeks ago, for a public Internet censored so ruthlessly that it couldn’t even carry [...]

  2. Birthday Postcards Says:

    I’ve found a lot of excellent virtual birthday cards at 123Greetings. You may want to check the site, if you need one.