Restricting Virtual Depravity
"We're trying to protect kids from people who have, say, scanned Kurt Cobain's autopsy pictures and marked them 'Bambi,' so that some 12-year-old won't accidentally find them in a search," says Microsystems president Nigel Spicer in defense of Cyber Patrol, the parental internet-locking device his company has just put on the market. It controls not only your child's ability to access certain sites (or your roommate's if you're mean), but her amount of usage per day or week, and even the time of day at which she can access the Internet. One of several preemptive software strikes in the battle against smut in cyberspace, Cyber Patrol differs from its competitors in that its software includes the CyberNOT List, an encrypted file documenting wicked Websites, naughty news groups, upsetting URLs, and illicit Internet relay chat rooms. Users can update the list daily and add specific Websites to this dungeon of virtual depravity. The list is inaccessible through the software, so the curious young'un won't know when he'll suddenly encounter a blank page with the boldface message: Access Restricted by Cyber Patrol! The makers of the program list a number of criteria by which parents can customize the CyberNOT List, including violence/profanity, partial nudity and art (perhaps this refers to something like Venus of Urbino by the suggestively named "Titian"), sexual acts/text, "gross" depictions/text, racist/ethnic impropriety, satanic/cult, drugs and drug culture, militant/extremist, gambling/betting, the vague and scary category "questionable/illegal," alcohol/beer/wine/tobacco, and four categories you can fill in on your own. Use your imagination: dismemberment/art, silly/awkwardly constructed, medical/Hello Kitty. The rub lies in the CyberNOT List's wipeout of gay- and lesbian-related information sites. Merely labeling a location with the word gay seems to be enough to deny access. A search for the Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians' Frequently Asked Question site, highly unlikely to contain compromising photos of Jeff Stryker in a harness, yields only "Access Restricted by Cyber Patrol!" as does a gift shop called Gay Goodies, a "lesbian-owned chocolate company that manufactures the triangle-shaped Gay Bar chocolate bar." You can get to the Gay Games IV Website, however, and to firstname.lastname@example.org's first page, though Cyber Patrol freezes you there and doesn't let any of those incredibly risque fashion shoots appear. Nor will it allow you to see the wide-open beaver shots at the Log Cabin Club's homepage. It won't even let you get to a site that gives a virtual tarot card reading. What category does that fall under? Satanic/flaky? "We try not to discriminate," Spicer says regarding the gay and lesbian blockage. "We have built it around the idea of parental preference." If you disagree that a Website might disturb or offend, he explains, you can simply remove it from the list. But customization is time-consuming and can only be haphazard without a clear idea of the vast amounts of information blocked by the program. If on-the-go moms and dads are going to spend all that time restricting a kid's cyberplay, they might as well take her to the circus. Outside classroom Internet use, where perhaps the Erotic Penis Enlargement Available Here Website might not seem appropriate in all cases, the rhetoric of Cyber Patrol ignores the curiosity factor. Though some Polly Purebred might accidentally stumble upon a full-color scan of pigs breeding from time to time, the dangers Cyber Patrol seeks to prevent don't come from outside the house but from inside the dirty minds of kids themselves, including the desperate minds of gay and lesbian youths seeking validation via modem. The program merely prevents parents and teachers from having to explain things these children will certainly encounter in later life. It protects by assuming the role of a virtual parent, and a pretty strict one at that. In the face of this particular kind of rule by proxy, kids will just use the Internet next door, where Sally's parents don't have (or can't afford) Cyber Patrol. Unlike a parent, however, Cyber Patrol and its ilk can't teach children how to deal with the risky subject matter they crave, and therefore parents who use it risk raising the next Andrew Dice Clay.