Shut Up, Again

Senate takes another whack at free speech online

Here we go, tumbling down the rabbit hole again. One as foolishly optimistic as I might have hoped that the question of free speech on the Internet had been settled when the Supreme Court torched the Communications Decency Act (CDA) last June, declaring that adults' right to free speech far outweighed society's desire to protect kids from the unseemlier side of life. But now Congress has launched a fresh assault on the First Amendment, and it's beginning to look like a case of being nibbled to death by schmucks.On Feb. 10, the Senate Commerce Committee held its "Indecency on the Internet" hearing to consider a bill introduced by its chairman, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). The Internet School Filtering Act would require all schools and libraries receiving federal funding from a $2 billion Internet-access fund controlled by the Federal Communications Commission to install filtering software, thus shielding kids' delicate eyeballs from online filth.The star of the show was unquestionably Huntington Beach police detective Daryk Rowland, who entered wearing a bag over his head to protect his undercover identity and scuttled behind a screen to deliver his testimony. Rowland investigates online sex crimes for the Huntington Beach Police Department, which has made more than 10 arrests in two years, making it one of the most aggressive in the state when it comes to Internet sex crimes. But to listen to Rowland, you'd think the HBPD had barely scratched the surface of an iceberg of online molestation. His testimony painted a picture of an Internet teeming with molesters who had abandoned parking lots, school yards and other traditional haunts in favor of lurking in chat rooms, just waiting to exploit your child. "Children who are being allowed on the Internet unsupervised are at great risk of being lured, abducted and molested by some of the strangers with whom they have made contact," Rowland told the committee. "In the cases I have worked [on], I have seen numerous children who have been molested and otherwise victimized by strangers online."Any molestation of children is, of course, an abomination. But as I've written in the past, the chances of your child being molested by someone they met online are virtually nonexistent; the chances of them being molested by a relative or a friend are about a zillion times greater. Look at the figures: in 1996, 219,000 cases of child molestation were reported in the United States. From January to November 1997, 135 cases of online molestation were reported. That means online molestation accounts for a whopping .062 percent of child sex-abuse cases.Rowland also expressed concern about children's access to pornography online, arguing that it was too easy for kids to simply stumble across hardcore-sex sites while innocently surfing the Net. The megaconservative Washington Times related a beautiful anecdote about Rowland and his daughter being attacked by a porn site while looking for photos of Los Angeles. "The detective . . . typed the words 'Los Angeles' and 'pictures' into a search directory to help his daughter find photos to spruce up a report," the article read. "But the first Internet site to pop up was X-rated, he said."'Thank God I had filtering software on or my daughter would have been exposed to it,' he told the committee."Now, the Times' credulous repetition of this tale reveals a lamentable ignorance of how search engines work. I replicated Rowland's experiment on Yahoo! by typing in the words "Los Angeles" and "pictures." And, in addition to the Los Angeles River Virtual Tour site and the Victor Franco site, both of which seemed tailor-made for the Rowlands' purposes, there was, in fact, a listing for Los Angeles Porn Stars, which boasted, "Hardcore porno action!" However, the site could not have "popped up" in front of Rowland's affronted eyes, even sans filtering software, because that's not how Yahoo! works. To get to the hardcore porno action, you have to click on the listing, which warns you exactly what it contains, and then navigate your way past a disclaimer screen that asks you whether you're 18, informs you that you might be offended by the images, and urges you to turn back if you're not sure you want to see them. This is a far cry from inadvertently stumbling across pornography; getting to the Los Angeles Porn Stars site requires informed consent.But then, McCain didn't even make a pretense of holding an objective hearing; the deck was stacked six ways from Sunday. He snarled at Seth Warshavsky, who runs the adult Internet Entertainment Group and made a persuasive argument for free speech. He showcased Andrew Sernovitz, head of the Association for Interactive Media, who lobbied hard for filtering software (one of the association's members, coincidentally enough, is Net Nanny, which makes filtering software). Prominently excluded from testifying were the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, both of which are strongly opposed to the use of filtering software on First Amendment grounds.All of this bore a striking resemblance to the hysterical speechifying that went on when the CDA was wending its way through Congress. Then, as now, politicians engaged in rampant fearmongering to score moralistic points. And then, as now, the sticky questions of constitutionally guaranteed free speech were ignored as inconvenient. Having failed with the CDA, the guardians of our morals in the Senate are tightening their focus and trying to chip away our civil liberties online bit by bit. But the issues that deep-sixed the CDA aren't going to go away. Study after study has shown that filtering software is fatally flawed when it comes to distinguishing between protected and unprotected speech. Too often, filtering software is subject to the prejudices and simple errors of its makers. The Censorware Project found that Cyber Patrol blacklisted the Creature's Comfort Pet Care Service site and the MIT Project on Mathematics and Computation. Peacefire, a teen free-speech group, reported that CYBERsitter blocks the sites of the National Organization for Women, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Peacefire itself.Then there's the issue of local control. Fans of hypocrisy should relish the sight of the Republican-controlled Congress, which has been gnashing its teeth over "federal mandates" and "states' rights" for years, trying to stifle choice at the local level and impose strict federal controls over schools and libraries.At least one librarian is concerned about that: John Adams, county librarian for the Orange County Public Library system. Adams said his staff is applying for money from the FCC's Internet-access fund to partially pay for the $90,000 it's costing them to connect all 27 branches to the Internet. But, he added, he would have grave misgivings about taking that money with any filtering-software strings attached."Attempting to achieve what was determined by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional suppression of free speech through such a roundabout method does not recommend itself as good government or as a policy we would be supportive of," he said. "I think it's worse to be forced by the federal government to install filtering software in disregard of what local preferences might be [than to not have Internet access at all]."The Orange County Public Library system does not use filtering software at any of its branches. "We are in the business of making information available to the public," Adams said. "It's up to each individual or their parents to determine what is useful or suitable."There are myriad objections to filtering software," he added. "To my knowledge, there's not a satisfactory filtering product out there that does the job people want them to do. Probably a more philosophical issue, though, is the fact that by denying access to sites that somebody at a filter company thinks is objectionable, we are not furthering the objectives of the public library."Adams is hopeful that McCain's bill won't pass. So am I. But I'm not counting on it. Right now, it looks like defending free speech on the Net is going to be an arduous process of repeatedly slapping down ambitious pols who hold the guarantees of the Constitution less dear than the opportunity to spout moralistic platitudes. Gird your loins, folks; we've got a long fight ahead of us.Exercise your right to free speech with Wyn at whilty@sprynet.com. And visit our Web site at www.ocweekly.com.

 
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