Virtual Controversies

It was once forcasted that computers in the future would weigh no more than 1.5 tons.
Of course, in todays technologically savvy times, its a common occurrence to see people
holding their computers in their lap, or even in their hand. Theres no doubt about it: the
computer already plays an important role in our lives and that role is likely to expand as more
advancements are made. However, new innovations mean new controversies. The Internet,
for example, has transformed the way people communicate, conduct business, learn, and
entertain themselves. With a simple click of the mouse key, one can do things that were
thought science fiction just a few decades ago. For all the benefits associated with the
Internet, the presence of pornography, hate groups, and other distasteful topics has lead to a
nationwide debate on first amendment rights and censorship. The goal for the Internet should
not be total freedom for unsavory groups to deliver their message to whomever they can, but a
balance between the freedom of those who want this material and the freedom of those who
When President Clinton signed the Communication Decency Act into law on February
8, 1996, he effectively approved the largest alteration of national communication laws in 62
years. In order to elicit a response from web creators who published indecent sites, the bill
instituted criminal penalties. However, the emphasis in the bill was on decency and not
obscenity- which had long been established as the method to determine what was
supported by the first amendment and what was not. The CDA was eventually overthrown in
Reno vs. ACLU because of the unconstitutionality vague wording and the noted importance in
keeping the Internet a hospital arena for free expression and speech. In 1998, another piece
of legislation was approved called the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, that is
considered less stringent than the Communication Decency Act, but is currently undergoing
the same analysis of its adherence to the Constitution by the ACLU.

Even if the Child Online Protection Act managed to pass the courts high standards,
there exists no way for a national piece of legislation to control an international network. The
Internet is massive and chaotic in nature since it is technologically infesible for any one group
to own or organize it. According to latest estimates, more than 40 percent of US households
own a computer and 90 million adults use the Internet regularly (Cyber Eyes). Users can
access the are many wonders of the online world like email, gopher sites, IRC (Internet Relay
Chat) channels, newsgroups, and web pages. The idea that censorship could restrict this
freedom, a trademark characteristic of the Internet, would altogether defeat the purpose of it.

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Once a person places information on a Web page or bulletin board, there is little
control over, or knowledge of, who gains access to it. The government has no right infringing
on the rights and freedoms of adult individuals in order to make the Internet safe for
children. The hallmark of a democratic society is allowing a variety of ideas and information
to be accessible to its citizens. If that means allowing hate groups to post a site on the
Internet, then so be it. Journalist Howard Rheingold predicts that “Heavy-handed attempts to
impose restrictions on the unruly but incredibly creative anarchy of the Net could kill the
spirit of cooperative knowledge-sharing that makes the Net valuable to millions” (Rheingold
n.p.). Perhaps the reason why government censorship is so attractive is because some people
are not willing to learn about the Internet and take the initiative to seek alternatives that better
suit their needs. Blatant laziness should not excuse the right of government to interfere in
peoples lives and repress certain individual liberties that are sacred.
Internet users treasure their Constitutional rights and the idea that the Internet is
another instrument by which to express their freedom of speech. And, while it is true that the
Internet poses some very real dangers to children, those dangers must be addressed in a
meaningful manner; blind censorship will simply not do the job. The presence of
pornography and other distasteful sites are relative to the overall size and uses of the Internet.
Some argue that there is no amount of censorship or filtering available that will altogether
restrict access to questionable material. Children are bound to learn about the less positive
aspects of the world one way or the another, either through friends, the media, or in countless
other ways. No, allowing the government to censor indecent material will not solve the
problem, but there are steps that individual citizens can take in order to shield themselves and
their children from the dangers on the Internet.

Software is being created at a lightening-fast pace in order to accommodate peoples
Internet needs. SurfWatch is one example of software that grants parents the responsibility
for blocking what is received by their child and uses continual updates in order to keep up to
par on the latest technology. Cyber Patrol is time sensitive and allows parents to prohibit
Internet use during certain times or limit the overall amount of hours their children can spend
online; it also filters certain sites. Many commercial Internet service providers allow for
parental controls which sets customized standards for each individual user. Additionally, a
“proxy server” can be attached the childs web browser is a program and disallows access to
some specified Internet sites or Usenet newsgroups.
Internet users must be selective in the sites they visit because haphazard surfing can
often lead to entering a questionable site. Most people can tell where they are on the Internet,
or where they are going, by simply staying aware of their surroundings. Since the Internets
early beginnings, most of the information on the Internet has been classified in order to
provide easy navigation. For instance, the articles in a particular Usenet newsgroup, say
soc.culture.australia.entertainment, will undoubtedly contain discussions on entertainment in
Australia. Meanwhile, a newsgroup called alt.binaries.sex.pictures will undoubtedly contain
files of pornographic pictures. Discretion must be used by both adults, parents, and children
in order to have a pleasant Internet experience.

It is important for parents to take an active responsibility over controlling what their
child sees. Rheingold summarizes this belief: Americans are going to have to teach their
children well. The only protection that has a chance of working is to give their sons and
daughters moral grounding and some common sense” (Rheingold n.p.). Parents cannot expect
their children to know what to do when presented with a vulgar demonstration if they have
not made their views known. Exposure to offensive materials like drugs and nudity can
sometimes be as problematic as exposure to topics like politics, economics, religion, and race
relations. Trust and communication are key factors in knowing what a child accesses on the
If anything, the Internet has taught us as a society to be aware of our surroundings.
We have found a technology that doubles as being both wonderful and detrimental to our
society. While it is true that the Internet does have some portions that are blatantly
distasteful, a few simple steps can be taken to improve the experience of both the Internet
user and their childs Internet experience. The Internet is sure to develop in future years and
become an even more influential part of our lives. Instead of censoring it, we need to accept
the benefits it poses and become informed of what we can do, not as people ruled by a
government but as people ruled by our own morals and beliefs, to insure that the Internet will
remain a place free for expression or for speech.


Bibliography:
References
Berry, John N. (1998, March 1). Choosing sides. Library Journal, 123 (4), 6.

Brown, Andrew. (1999, February 12). The limits of freedom. New Statesman, 48-49.

Curiel, Jonathan. (1997, May 14). Cyberporn vs. censorship. The Advocate, 51-53.

Civility without censorship: The ethics of the Internet- cyberhate. (1999, January). Vital
Speeches, 196-199.

Cyber Eyes. (2000, April 27). San Bernadino County Sun, D1, D2.

Caragata, Warren. (1995, May 22). Crime in the Cyberspace. Maclean’s, 50-57.
Elmer-Dwitt, Philip. (1995, July 3). On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn. Time, 81-93.

Marshall, Joshua Micah. (1998, January-February). Will free speech get tangled in the net?
The American Prospect, 46-51.

Nellen, Ted. (1998, November). Internet censorship is both a menace and a nuisance.
Technology ; Learning, 19, 53.
A Righteous Balance of Internet Freedom. (1999, April). Communications of the ACM,
13-17.

Simon, Glenn E. (1998). Cyberporn and censorship: Constitutional barriers to preventing
access to Internet pornography by minors. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology,
88 (3), 3, 6-17, 25-27, 32.

Zoning speech on the Internet: A legal and technical model. (1999, November). Michigan
Law Review, 395-424.