Society has always struggled to protect the public from the inappropriate acts of a few people, who impose lower standards of morality on an involuntary basis to the general public. Society has monitored and set controls on mass media such as radio, television, magazines, and movies. However, another mass media has arrived which has virtually uncontrollable worldwide access. The censors are now in a dilemma of how to regulate this new media called the Internet.
Radio Stations have “kill buttons” that the producer and host can use to censor a callers comments considered harmful from being heard by the listener. This is accomplished by delaying the call for several seconds, which allows the producer and host to censor the call. The “kill button” is used for complying with FCC regulations and for protecting from the consequences of even the briefest harmful comment. Lawsuits and FCC investigations are part of all controversial radio personalities lives.
Some of the more controversial newsgroups on the Internet would cause a media producer to tremble. Most of the remarks and discussions on the Internet would never be allowed to go beyond a “kill button”. Highly controversial statements made about well known individuals would cause a lawyer to celebrate, and the opinions made about the government and important groups within our community would make these groups mad. Currently, there is no way of regulating who is allowed to use the Internet or what they will say.
The public broadcast producers nightmare of uncensored work is a paradise to most of the Internets users. Tired of newspapers and broadcasters who must appeal to the FCC, the public, and advertisers, the Internet users can find material related to all their interests. The Internet is owned by no one and has no sponsors and editors, therefore the Internet is unlike any previous form of communication.
The government is attempting to regulate the Internet, but most of the politicians dont understand the Internet. The Internet has also caused many problems with offensive or sexually explicit material without any control. The general media declared war against the Internet this year, telling horror stories of the availability of bomb recipes that could threaten our existence. “There is the possibility that the Federal Government will introduce legislation on this matter in the future,” said Geoff Slater. “The Senate has already conducted hearings into the matter.”(47).Attempts to regulate the Internet, such as the infamous Communications Decency Act (CDA) in the United States, attempted to place similar conditions to those of a broadcast community and forbid the transmission of offensive content on the Internet. The CDA, sponsored by Nebraska Senator Jim Exon, criminalizes the transmission of obscene material (without actually saying what obscene is defined as) b!
y computer-based communications. In Connecticut there is a law that makes on-line harassment a misdemeanor unless you are a convicted felon then it is a felony. Virginia passed a law that makes the on-line service provider responsible for the acts of its users. Everyone is trying to censor the Internet, but nothing seems to be working.
Seeing the Internet being abused should be no surprise. Every form of communications that has ever existed has been used for corruption, beginning with speech. Pamphlets, books, magazines, video cassettes and broadcasting have been used to distribute offensive or sexually explicit material. Still, society spends billions to help insure that everyone is taught to read, write, and use all of these forms of communications.
If the Internet was similar to other forms of communication, it would be easy to regulate. The censorship of television and movies is accepted and regulated by the governments of the United States, Australia and other nations. These Nations are beginning to witness the introduction of the Net to many users and the need for some control. The Internet is like a telephone. Its use is determined by its subscribers and not its creators. When censoring the Internet, our leaders must make sure that their policies dont hurt the people that they are trying to protect.
Few users of the Internet would approve of the networks being used to carry offensive material, however the users of the Internet cannot support the calls for censorship from some politicians and reporters. The Internet simply cannot be treated the same as previous forms of communications, for technical and social reasons.
“There are several reasons that have forced me to conclude that legislation to censor the Internet is unenforceable and impractical,” said Peter Merel.(13). His studies of censorship proposals have enabled him to identify several problems that happen frequently throughout the worldwide regulation debate. “First, you cant penalize the receiver of illicit information, because they may not have sought to receive the information, or, having requested it, they may not have been aware of its nature until they receive it.”(13).
Merel adds, “you cant require access providers to be aware of illicit information flowing through their systems, because there is no way that they can systematically detect it. They cant scan it by eye, because the volume is too great to be commercially feasible except on a massive scale, and pattern-recognition software isnt bright enough to do it automatically.”(48).
The last issue Merel talks about is probably the most controversial for the future of the Internet. “Most information on the Internet comes from overseas. Our laws wont affect people who live in other countries. Getting other countries to agree on a uniform code of censorship is politically infeasible, and there is no way to filter incoming information form overseas short of unplugging the real Internet. Doing that would be commercial and cultural suicide.”(48). New Zealands Trevor Rovers has stated on the record that the idea of totally disconnecting his own nation form the Internet has crossed his mind. The international nature of the Internet makes global censorship seem pointless to apply and makes local censorship a potentially global issue. The communications Decency Act refers both to “communications within the United States or in foreign communications with the United States.”(48). If it is ever enforced to its full extent, foreign Net users could be charge!
d under this United States law. The only reasonable solution is to encourage the use of self-regulation.
“Were damned if we do, and damned if we dont,” explained Steve Engel.(37). A recent court case in the United States shows how the actions of an on-line service provider can backfire. A New York Supreme Court judge ruled that the service provider Prodigy, who edited the contents of some of its on-line services, could be subjected to legislation designed to regulate the activities of publishers and held liable for messages posted to them. By censoring some material that could be considered offensive or inappropriate, an assumption was made that any uncensored material must be carried with the expressed approval of Prodigy. The decision cleared the way for a liable lawsuit against Prodigy by an investment banking firm who claimed to have been misrepresented. Prodigy has since appealed the case, but the incident could lead to further problems in the future.
By attempting to regulate the material sent by subscribers, the Communications Decency Act seems to be illegal in some circumstances. Under United States law, the monitoring of personal E-mail messages is considered a breach of privacy and subject to prosecution. “This is illegal under the Telecommunications Act. Its also against our own policies,” added Steve Engel.(13).
Given the constraints of most plans to regulate the Internet, it appears that no government or group can or should be able to censor the entire network. Nevertheless, it is difficult to justify allowing minors access to sexually explicit material.
One of the best ideas for censoring the Internet is a V-chip for your computer. It calls for self-regulations in the programs people write. For something to appear on to the Internet, it must have a “meta” tag written into it. A “meta” tag is a command in the program that allows the program to be rated. With this rating, service providers can write a V-chip into their systems. This program will allow parents to block out, for example, R-rated pages on the Internet. The only way to access these pages is with a code or password. Developers will try to underrate their pages and claim they are not as bad as they really are, but laws could control this. If a service provider finds out that a customer has underrated a page, they could be immediately “unplugged.”
Other industries and professions have accomplished self-regulation by forming associations. The Internet needs an organized association to develop rules and regulations of the Internet. This would be accomplished by certification of Internet developers and users. This membership of certified Internet professionals would bring the Internet to a higher level and allow the establishment of self-regulated rules of conduct on the Internet. This association could also develop their own self-regulated enforcement of these rules. The only way to censor the Internet is self-regulation.