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For our own good...

Net nannies and "information managers" censor cyberspace

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

n my last column, I wrote about some of the fun, sexy, educational or otherwise interesting queer resources on the Internet. Now it's time to look at a less pleasant topic: the folks out there who don't want you to have access to them.

Internet censorship is a pretty hot topic these days, what with the passage and subsequent overturn of the Communications Decency Act in the US, which (briefly) made it illegal to make "indecent" material accessible to minors via the Internet -- essentially, to make it available at all, given that there is no surefire way to control the age of people accessing a particular site. More recently, there have been stories about specific Internet providers -- like local provider iStar -- dropping sexually-oriented newsgroups, often without telling users..

But one of the scarier developments I've seen is a type of technology that is actually being promoted in some quarters as a way to avoid censorship. It's been described euphemistically as everything from "Content Selection" to "Access Management" to "Parental Empowerment", but could perhaps best be termed do-it-yourself Internet censorship.

Currently, the most visible form of DIY censorship is the plethora of software currently being flogged to enable parents to control what their kids can access via the Net. Programs with names like Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol and CyberSitter are locked in a fierce competition to see who can offer parents -- and employers, schools, and so on -- the most control over what their children, students or employees can access.

But one of the most interesting things about the level of competition between these programs is that the actual lists of banned sites have become a trade secret of sorts, and are kept under tight control -- that's right, users of the programs aren't allowed to know just what their kids are being blocked from seeing.

Journalists Brock Meeks and Declan McCullagh, of the incisive and irreverent Internet news service CyberWire Dispatch, which recently won the "Best Investigative Story or Series" award from the Computer Press Association for its previous Net censorship coverage, got hold of the lists from several of the major blocking programs. And it's not just porn that's being blocked. Apparently, incorrect ideas are subject to "management" as well, and I bet we can all guess what kind of ideas are prominently featured.

Yes, newsgroups like alt.journalism.gay-press, alt.politics.homosexual and soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi are off limits, as is the US National Organization for Women's web site -- hardly hotbeds of smut. CyberSitter goes a step further with their "context-sensitive" censorship which vets Internet content by referring to specific associations of words. On their bad list are combinations like "[gay, queer, bisexual] [male, men, boy, group, rights, community, activities]", and "[gay, queer, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual] [society, culture]"..

Considering how queer Internet resources can often act as a lifeline for gay and lesbian youth trapped in homophobic families, this is pretty scary -- especially the fact that many of these programs offer parents the ability to monitor what kind of content their kids have been trying to access. It's also pretty alarming considering that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation have a representative on the committee which oversees the formation of Cyber Patrol's CyberNOT list. But according to the CyberWire Dispatch, the oversight committee never gets to actually see the list whose creation they advise on. (For an amusing parody of all this, by the way, check out Wanker Nanny.)

But a greater threat is waiting in the wings, which may well transcend political divisions in the potential threat it poses to free speech on the Net. A new technology known as the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), ironically promising "Internet Access Controls Without Censorship", allows labels of various sorts to be "associated" with Internet sites, which can then in turn be used to screen out those sites. Creators of sites will be encouraged to label their own sites, but if they "are unwilling to participate, or can't be trusted to participate honestly, independent organizations can provide third-party labels," according to a paper by the World Wide Web Consortium. And that's where it starts getting interesting.

Say you're running a web site for a gay youth support group. Even if you decline to use PICS to label your own site, anyone who has the cash to sink into the project can label it for you -- and you don't have to know about it. Once labelled, your site is potentially subject to being blocked at a number of levels -- by programs like CyberSitter and NetNanny, or by Internet providers who opt to "provide preconfigured sets of selection rules", which the W3 document offers as an alternative since ordinary people might find it setting up their own selection criteria to be "too complex".

And it doesn't stop there. "Governments may want to restrict reception of materials that are legal in other countries but not in their own," notes the paper. So if the ruling junta in the Third World dictatorship of your choice wants to restrict information about human rights, PICS'll do that for them, no problem. And we're not just talking Web sites, either -- "There could even be labels for Usenet authors (i.e., people who post to public newsgroups) according to the quality of the messages they post; posts from those with poor reputations could be screened out." All this "without censorship," of course.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.


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