By David Canton
Internet filters pose challenge
In the continuing battle between free speech and control over online content, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments about Congress's latest child protection legislation.
Since 1996, the U.S. Congress has passed three child protection statutes, most recently the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
All three have been subject to judicial scrutiny, with CIPA making it to the highest U.S. court last month.
CIPA creates a condition in which, to receive federal funding, public libraries and schools must install software that filters out pornographic content. In a library, these filters can be disengaged at the request of a patron.
In an earlier lower Appeals Court judgment, it was found that CIPA unduly restricts the rights of library patrons to access legitimate, non-pornographic material. At the Supreme Court, the arguments encompassed issues of free speech, censorship, protection of children, effectiveness of filters and restricting access to innocent sites.
Internet filtering isn't just a U.S. issue. It also poses challenges for Canadian schools and libraries, even though Canada has no legislative equivalent to CIPA. It's a tough balancing act to allow free speech and individual choice while protecting children or those who find certain things offensive.
The primary fear of anti-CIPA advocates is that filters thwart legitimate research and Web use. For instance, they might prevent a patron from accessing information about breast cancer. One could say a patron need only request the filter be disengaged. However, fear of being stigmatized may discourage them from such a request.
Another concern is the filters might inadvertently censor innocent Web sites, or simply be too crude. It would require a very sophisticated filter creator to maintain censorship over the vast and booming Internet porn industry. Some legitimate sites might get blocked, while salacious sites could slip through.
Justice David Souter noted a further issue of contention in that the software companies, rather than the librarians, would dictate censored materials. Given that many companies consider their lists of off-limit sites to be trade secrets, librarians and patrons could be unaware of what they are being prevented from viewing.
Internet filtering can also be adopted to address work place issues. If employees can access online content, employers run the risk of complaints that workers are surfing inappropriate sites and exposing their colleagues to them.
Complaints of harassment or a poisoned work environment could potentially be claimed.
Employment policies about the proper use of the Internet and computer software offer some remedial comfort. However, Internet-filtering proponents argue filters offer more effective assurances against the dissemination of potentially harmful online content.
No one wants to be exposed to images or text they find offensive, or to have children exposed to such material.
But the crux of the issue is there is no easy way to prevent such exposure without also preventing access to legitimate material. There also is no foolproof way to prevent all unwanted access.
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