The dangers of Internet censorship – The Boston Globe

The dangers of Internet censorship – The Boston Globe

By Harry Lewis, November 5, 2008

SUPPOSE that government regulators proposed to read all postal mail in order to protect families from things they should not see. Anything not legally prohibited would be delivered. Any unlawful words, pictures, or videos would be thrown away.

Sound like Orwell’s “1984,” or China? Perhaps.

Yet change the technology from ink on paper to bits in wires – the zeroes and ones that flow through the Internet – and these are the plans of significant democracies. France is targeting copyrighted music and movies. Australian officials are going after child pornography – but may check for other bad stuff while they are at it. Objectionable snooping? Both governments say that law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about.

Could such ubiquitous surveillance gain traction in the United States, with its Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches? A proposal pending before the Federal Communications Commission raises just that possibility. It would provide Internet service to all Americans – with a catch. Content would be censored, free of “any images or text that otherwise would be harmful to teens and adolescents” under 18 years old.

No one wants young children viewing pornography. But to enforce the FCC standard, someone would have to decide where the “harmful” line should be drawn. What about medical illustrations, or a Globe story about female genital mutilation in Africa? To be safe for all ages, censors would have to exclude vast amounts of useful, lawful content. And since only 57 percent of Americans have broadband connections today, the censored service would for many people be the only service.

Determining which ideas are “harmful” is not the government’s job. Parents should judge what information their children should see – and should expect that older children will, as they always have, find ways around restrictive rules.

The Internet censoring proposal follows other government efforts to limit speech in the digital world. In the 1990s, two US anti-indecency laws were found unconstitutional because they unnecessarily limited communication among adults. “Perhaps,” wrote one judge, “we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection.”

Today parents fear that sexual predators will masquerade as children on MySpace and Facebook. In fact, there is no evidence that the Internet has increased the number of predators. Child sex abuse cases actually decreased 50 percent between 1990 and 2005. Most sexual propositions to youth come from peers, not adult strangers.

Nonetheless, encouraged by state attorneys general, businesses are developing aggressive child safety tools. One product tracks a child’s every keystroke, calling Daddy’s cellphone whenever Johnny googles a prohibited word. Bills before Congress would block Wikipedia in school libraries, sacrificing a useful resource in order to restrict unsupervised use of social networking sites.

Yet for every child caught talking to a pedophile online, hundreds would be discouraged from searching the Internet’s vast electronic library for truths their parents will not tell them.

Controlling every word children are saying and hearing, from birth to age 18, isn’t child protection; it’s the perfect preservation of prejudice and ignorance.

Moreover, Internet censorship does not work. Documents can get past content filters if they are sent in encrypted form – and if encryption itself were banned, the network could not support secure electronic commerce.

Radio and television speech codes were constitutionally justified in the 1930s by the limited capacity of the electromagnetic spectrum. Internet technology has no analogous limitation, so there is no legal justification for Internet censorship beyond the obscenity and libel prohibitions that apply to print media.

The Internet has revived ancient fears about the risks of curiosity. The story of Eden and the myth of Prometheus teach that open access to knowledge is what makes us human, for better and worse. A key principle of our democracy is that unfettered information flows bring public enlightenment. The Internet is the greatest information conduit ever invented. We should not dim its light to protect ourselves from what it may reveal.

Harry Lewis is professor of computer science at Harvard and fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He is co-author of “Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion.”