SILICON LOUNGE: Aim High
Ed Rasimus and I couldn't be more different. He's conservative. I lean left. He flew 250 combat missions as a fighter pilot in Vietnam. Born a little sooner, I would have been Hanoi Donna. Ed sides with the National Rifle Association; I despise it. Ed's a PC guy; I'm a Mac chick.Now, though, Ed and I are gunning for the same target: attempts to force public institutions to filter the Internet."There are a lot of folks who throw out the 'red herring' of protecting the children from pornography while really hoping that they can protect the world from incorrect thought," Ed told me.A lot is right. Many states are trying to figure out creative ways to force public institutions to censor Internet content (http://usic.org/ils061799.htm). Arizona, California and Michigan recently passed filtering laws. And in individual communities that instituted public Internet filtering, judges are finding for free speech. In Loudon County, Va., library patrons sued to remove filters and won. In Livermore, Calif., residents sued to implement filters and lost.In the first referendum in the country to impose filtering in public libraries, Holland, Mich., voters just rejected the move (promoted by the American Family Association, of course) on Feb. 22 by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.Ed, a columnist for Computer Edge magazine and a library trustee in Colorado, has vocally fought this battle in his state for eight years. But despite efforts by Ed and a coalition of conservative and liberal civil libertarians, now a shameful filtering bill is headed to Gov. Bill Owens' (R) desk. In exchange for $2 million for public libraries to buy books and magazines, the libraries must censor "obscene or illegal" Internet sites from their computers.Who's to say what is "obscene"? Coitus? Bare boobs? Penis? Penis with no boobs in site? A breast self-exam? A photo of Botticelli's Venus? Or, how about a black man hanging by his neck as I recently saw on a white "racialist" site?And if a site is "illegal"-- threatens an individual's life? child pornography? -- it is certainly not up to public librarians to seek and censor. That would be the job of a qualified agency like the FBI.Of course, most librarians do not want to sit in judgment and become censors; most enjoy disseminating information, not squelching it. Many consider filtering attempts a slippery slope toward even more censorship, reports Jeannette Allis Bastion in "First Monday," a peer-reviewed Internet magazine (http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_10/bastian/). "The Web is a level playing field and all information has equal weight," she writes.The Nevada Library Association has posted its objections to filtering on the Internet (http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/nla/news/filter.htm). NLA says filters can block valuable information and that they ineffectively block objectionable content, anyhow. "The Nevada Library Association emphatically opposes attempts by federal, state, and local governments to mandate the use of filters," the site states.Ed expects the filtering issue to explode locally and nationally in 2000 with more politicians trying to filter and more library districts and individuals resisting. "The Internet censorship issue is merely simmering," he said. He's right: State legislatures across the country are trying to creatively force public institutions to censor content that some people find distasteful. It's the unconstitutional Communications Decency Act (CDA) all over again.Most irksome, I doubt many of the politicians who support such legally suspect initiatives are dim enough to think they could pass constitutional muster. Instead they are pandering for votes as President Clinton did when he signed the CDA. I'm sure the Arkansas Rhodes Scholar knew the Supreme Court would strike down the CDA, but he could say he tried to "protect" the kids.Filtering advocates say emphatically that they want to prevent kids from dangers such as pornography and bomb-making instructions on the Internet. But they're not completing the thought here, though. Filtering public content will also keep many adults from free and unfettered access. And that rankles filtering critics like Ed and me."I'd hate to see a library, or a college or an Internet in which we could only access information which was suitable for a third-grader. It might be 'safe,' but it certainly wouldn't be free," Ed said. He says it is up to parents, not the government, to guide kids in their Internet choices and how they react to content.Ed, too, rejects the smut bogeyman -- that the mere sighting of distasteful content is going to warp an otherwise-perfect kid, or turn her into a flaming radical. He used to finagle himself into the adult stacks in Chicago when he was 12. "I read Peyton Place when I was 13 and Lady Chatterley's Lover. I read Hemingway and Henry Miller by the time I was 14," he said.Tropic of Capricorn, and Ed still turned out OK. Well, almost. "Just don't ask me to come out for gun control," he warned. Roger that. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.