CMC Magazine: November 1998

An Argument Contra Censorship

by Mark E. Kraynak

Living inside the Beltway makes political discussions unavoidable. For the most part I find that moat such discussions with Capitol Hill types bear little or no interest for me. Usually I zone out until the conversation turns to sports or sex or history. However, one political issue draws my most rapt attention. When the topic of Internet legislation arises, I am consistently amazed by the lack of understanding exhibited by our politicians and their aides. The congressional staff members I know talk about Internet content regulation and control as if these things make sense and are feasible. In my opinion, neither is true.

As far as I can tell, the misconceptions of our politicians stem from an old paradigm for communications regulation. Traditional media (television, radio, film, sound recording) have been limited by a scarcity of resources and have thus been easily regulated. These media are at heart push based media, meaning that a producer of information distributes content to an anticipated audience. The range of choices for the audience is limited by the available bandwidth for content distribution and by the range of organizations capable of such large-scale publishing efforts. The result of this paradigm is that only a limited number of sites (physical, in this case) need be controlled in order to control the whole communications infrastructure.

New electronic media reverse this model. The costs of distribution have been virtually eliminated. Rather that pushing content out to the audience, an aspiring production outfit need only create and store content so that its audience might access it., The traditional, expensive, puss-based model now has become a cheap, pull-based model. The mass audience no longer is held in thrall by the few production organizations capable of distributing content for the mass media. The means with which to publish content to a worldwide audience is available to almost anyone1. Only the creativity and initiative of individuals limit the new model.

Whereas with traditional mass media, communication was not individual to individual, online speech can be. The result is that Internet content can't fall into the same legal category as broadcast content. In the United States at least, this brings up some thorny First Amendment issues. Our old laws on decency and obscenity can't apply because the nature of the medium is no longer a scarce resource which must be regulated for the good of the whole2. However, this isn't even the toughest legal issue at hand. National borders donít bind the online community. No single country can claim jurisdiction over the content or infrastructure that comprises the Internet3.

While technology to police the source and content of online communications exists today, it's use is limited mostly to the corporate environment. Large organizations use firewalls and content filters primarily to secure their internal network from the occasional malicious hacker and to prevent employees from "wasting" bandwidth on non-business-related activities4. However, most of my clients have run into trouble with the content filtering aspect of these technologies. This is a result of the difficulty of automating the censorship process. Teaching a machine to recognize inappropriate business content is hard, teaching one to recognize obscenity5 is even harder. In my experience, those organizations which have implemented content filtering at any significant level have found that it brings their Internet bandwidth to its knees by inserting a huge processing bottleneck between users and content.

To make a comparison, controlling Internet traffic is much more difficult than controlling drug traffic. Internet traffic is much more ephemeral that a drug shipment. The technology to disguise Internet traffic already is readily available6. Add to this the fact that crossing national boundaries and switching the source of a given site is as simple as a few keyboard commands, one would expect a war on inappropriate Internet content to be even less successful than the war on drugs has been. The monumental effort needed for a simple baseline of Internet content control makes the pronouncements of congressional members laughable.

Putting aside any doubts as to technological feasibility, the cultural considerations present a unique set of challenges. A central characteristic of the online community is resistance to censorship and regulation. The Internet and the online community grew out of Academia7. One of the foundations on which the online community was built was the premise preserving academic freedom. The prevailing attitude is that what you do or say shouldn't be restricted (within reason), and that the consumer of information is responsible for judging the quality and sensibility of that information. Rather than the being on the information creator, the onus for avoiding offensive material falls to the information consumer. This is a result both of the pull-based paradigm of the Internet and of the pro-academic freedom attitude prevalent during the Internet's nascent stages.

Whenever a censorship effort begins, it is a safe bet that a widespread resistance effort will emerge from the online community8. Often, by the time a restrictive law has been implemented, the online community already has bypassed it either through jurisdictional wrangling or through technological innovation. Pretty Good Privacy, an encryption program which has since gone commercial, got its start because Phil Zimmermann decided to distribute a strong encryption program before the government could outlaw such a thing. Since he succeeded in distributing the first versions before the government could put regulations in place, he got away with it. When he was about to distribute PGPfone, a version of the technology aimed at encrypting phone conversations, the government had acted and warned him not to distribute it. It is a testament to his commitment to freedom and privacy that he distributed it anyway, to the dismay of various government intelligence agencies and considerable legal hassles for him.

Another example of this resistance was the subversion of a major online service provider's attempt to bar indecent newsgroups. The service provider barred certain newsgroups from being visible in order to comply with a German law holding the service provider responsible for the content made available on itís network. Anti-censorship advocates put up gateways from Internet news servers to run-of-the-mill-web servers, bypassing the filtering efforts by making the information available via protocol which is harder to control that the news protocol. Today, America Online tries to discourage the use of certain newsgroups, but does so only by not publishing the addresses openly. Anyone who knows where they want to go still can get to them. This seems to be an uneasy, but acceptable peace.

Despite how it may seem, the online communityís culture isnít just a contrarian reaction to regulation. The culture isn't always anti-government, or even anti-censorship. For example, the need to allow parents to control the content available to their children is more or less universally accepted. However, the most successful efforts to do this stem from the voluntary or commercial labeling of sites rather than any legislative or regulatory efforts. Technologies like SurfWatch and Cybernanny can enable parents to prevent their children from accessing inappropriate material9. Also, associations which rate sites for different kinds of content against different community standards for "obscenity" are being formed. One can envision a world in which parents or schools subscribe to services to filter content based on a choice of standards which is in agreement with the parents' or schools' beliefs. In this situation, source-based censorship is not needed. Rather, the founding assumption that put content control in the hands of the end-user will hold true. Children can be prevented from viewing that which is not deemed appropriate for them, but the rights of those producing such "inappropriate" content will be preserved.

The recognition that responsibility comes with freedom seems to be characteristic of the online community. This recognition has lead the online community both to resist legislative censorship and to step up to the challenge of providing the means for reasonable content control at an individual level. So far, despite the wishes of some of our legislators, no Internet censorship effort has succeeded. The online communityís cherishing of freedom makes Internet censorship untenable, its sense of ethical responsibility makes Internet censorship unnecessary.


Mark E. Kraynak ( is a part time consultant in the areas of computer networking and network security, and a full time MFA candidate in creative writing at American University. He recently published an article on electronic commerce in SC Info Security News.

Copyright © 1998 by Mark E. Kraynak. All Rights Reserved.

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