Web Censorship for Dummies

Given all the bad porn on the Internet, I guess it's only fair that there should be some truly terrible ideas about stopping porn on the Internet too.

The latest comes from a group called CP80, which sadly isn't a phalanx of uptight androids who enjoy mysteriously homoerotic relationships with mailbox-shaped companions. Instead they're a group pushing something called the "Internet Channel Initiative," a "technology solution" designed to stamp out free speech -- erm, I mean porno -- on the Internet.

CP80's website should be subtitled something like "Conservative Wonks Gone Wild." Dozens of head shots of kids, many bare-shouldered, as if they're shirtless or naked outside the frame, adorn freakishly naive blurts of text about how we can redesign the Internet as a series of "channels," just like television. That way you can put all the porn on one "channel" and ask your ISP to block it. Easy as punch, right? Next we'll turn our mobile phones into microwave ovens! Cell phones broadcast in the microwave spectrum, so all you have to do is turn the volume up really high!

CP80's zany plan involves turning computer ports -- the software-created entryways onto your computer used for different types of communication, such as HTTP, the Web protocol on port 80, and SMTP, the e-mail protocol on port 25 -- into TV channels. In other words, CP80 wants to redefine one of the fundamental building blocks of Internet communication. Instead of using ports to distinguish different types of information transfer protocols, it would use them to distinguish different types of content.

There are several technical problems with this approach -- more on those in a minute -- but CP80 barely hits them before running up against a fundamental policy problem. In the "technical" FAQ, some CP80 wonk on crack writes, "Adult content will be required to be on a specific port (ie. 1101). Providers of content will be required to publish the Adult content on this specific port. They may still maintain their presence on port 80 as long as they do not cross into adult content (this line to be made up by who??? The Government?)"

These would-be censors are so unsure of how anyone can tell the difference between adult and nonadult content they actually use comic-book punctuation (three question marks???) to poke holes in their own theories. Even better, this FAQ is accompanied by a kind of public service Flash movie about how porn creeps into our homes. "The free and open nature of the Internet is becoming a problem," a smooth female voice informs us as the film begins. Then we see a cartoon red tide of porno seeping into a sea of innocent blue computers. The thing is so laughably bad it got passed around various blogs as a parody until somebody figured out it wasn't.

But here's the kicker. CP80 isn't just a bunch of right-wing college students who read Blogging for Dummies and threw up a Web site. It's sponsored by dozens of corporations including Amazon, Apple, Sony, Nokia, Disney, Wal-Mart, and (oddly) Hickory Farms. And it's affiliated with Third Way, a lobbying group with considerable political clout. One of its board members is Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) -- who, if you recall, recently sponsored a bill in the Senate that would have resulted in a 25 percent "porn tax" on Internet pornography.

With backing like this, it's not likely we can just dismiss CP80 with jokes, although certainly that's tempting. Instead we need to remind this group and others like it that you can't solve problems with content on the Web by re-architecting the Internet, just as you can't solve problems with prank phone calls by reengineering the phone system.

Turning ports into channels will cost us. First, it will force ISPs and Web software designers to go into the business of censoring Web sites based on vague rules about content. This is sure to be expensive, as it will mean constantly redesigning networks to reflect ever changing local laws about pornography.

Second, only people with technical knowledge will be able to access completely legal erotic expression. Since most firewalls and browsers block all but a few ports, putting porn on some random high-numbered port like 12045 would mean that most people's computers would be configured by default to block all speech classified as "adult." Unless people learn how to reprogram their firewalls and browsers -- and let's face it, most people won't or can't -- home computers will block the high-numbered porn ports even if ISPs let the porn through.

Using technology to enforce social policy is always a losing proposition -- especially when the social policies are so contested that no communication network, no matter how fungible, could ever be configured to support them.

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