Internet Rating Systems: Censors by Default

The Internet, first designed for the military and the scientific community, has grown larger and faster than anyone could have ever expected. Now being a potpourri of information, from business to entertainment, the Internet is quickly gaining respect as a useful and important tool in thousands of applications, both globally and domestically. But, the growth that the Internet has seen in the last few years has come with some growing pains. Reports of harmful information reaching children are always painful to hear; who wouldn\'t feel for a mother who lost a child to a pipe bomb that was built from instructions on the Internet? But the greatest pain thus far has been the issue of accessibility of pornography on the Internet, and it has many parents concerned. But is it as big of a threat as the media would like us to think, or has it been a bit exaggerated?

On July 3, 1995, Time Magazine published a story called On a screen near you: Cyberporn. This article discussed the types of pornography that could be found on the Internet such as, Pedophilia, S and M, urination, defecation, bestiality, and everything else in between. In Julia Wilkins\' Humanist article, she states that the Time magazine article was based on a George Town University undergraduate student\'s law journal paper that claimed that 83.5 percent of the pictures on the Internet were pornographic. Unfortunately, after Time published the article, it was discovered that the paper\'s research was found to be wrong. So wrong in fact that Time retracted the figure, which really was less then 1 percent, yet the damage had already been done (1). She also claimed that the article, which was the first of its kind, was responsible for sparking what can be compared to a Salem witch-hunt or the McCarthy hearings. In effect setting off many child protection and religious groups who were being fueled more by inaccurate data and a Moral Panic type attitude, than the facts (1). With government officials being pressured from these groups, they declared war and the anti-Internet campaign had begun.

The first attack came from Sen. Jim Exxon (D-Nebraska) in March 1995. He introduced legislation that made material considered obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent against the law (qtd. in Lead-up). This legislation made its way to the Telecommunication Reform Package, and ultimately to the Communication Decency Act (CDA). The Telecommunication Act, which includes the CDA was passed by the senate, the house, and signed by President Clinton on February 8, 1995. (Lead-up) The same day the CDA was signed, the opposition, led by the ACLU and other advocacy groups, along with industry leaders like AOL and Microsoft, filed suit in a Philadelphia District Court challenging the constitutionality of the new law (Kramer, qtd. in Lead-up). The ACLU v. Reno landmark case found that CDA violated the first amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. Then on June 26, 1997, in the U.S. Supreme Court, in the appeal, Reno v. ACLU, the justices reaffirmed that the CDA was unconstitutional and that it was a cure worse than the disease (Lead-up). By a vote of 7-2, the CDA and the Moral Panic went away (Wilkins). Or did it?

Despite the Supreme Court\'s ruling that the Communication Decency Act was a violation of the first amendment and that the Internet is entitled to the highest level of free speech protection , there is a new less obvious threat to the freedom of speech (qtd. in Beeson). According to ACLU, the new threat is hiding in the smoke screen of Internet rating systems (Beeson 2). These types of rating systems have been around for awhile, designed as a tool to protect children from inappropriate material and help businesses keep their Internet users focused. While benign on the surface, the ACLU warns the long-term ramification may in fact destroy the Internet and the rights that come with it. Parental level blocking programs are not only the most effective way to keep children from inappropriate information on the Internet, but unlike labeling systems, provide the rest of us with the freedom of information we deserve.

The protection of children is the focus of most of the issues surrounding the Net