Net Censorship and Democracy's Fall

When the Internet exploded onto the scene, it was interesting to see the concern expressed by both users and the many homespun Net pundits.

Two early concerns were commercialization and censorship. Both fell by the wayside as the Net fell into a morass of commercialization, and censorship is ever increasing.

Early fears were focused on Web censorship by totalitarian governments. China was often cited as a country that would not let its citizens see the whole truth.

The irony is that it's in the United States that we are seeing a strong movement toward censorship as well as the government spying on its citizens.

Three big news items appeared recently. The first was the federal government pushing an extension of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

This originally required telephone carriers to make their switching systems easier to tap. Now the government wants colleges and universities to make their networks easy to tap, too.

The argument for this, "to stop terrorists," is hollow, since long before 9/11 the government was pushing Carnivore, an elaborate way to tap into the entire Internet.

With Carnivore you could target and keep tabs on, say, a political enemy. That's what it's really about. Criminals use disposable cell phones nowadays, so these taps are dubious at best.

What concerns me more than the government censors are the gray censors. These include commercial filtering systems used by government and industry to keep content from entering the enterprise.

In September my rather innocuous techno-political blog, Dvorak Uncensored, was categorized by one of these systems as a sex site and banned from countless corporations and government agencies. There has been no sex on the site whatsoever.

The filtering mechanism was Websense, and the company never explained to me how this could happen. The problem was resolved within a few days, but finding the source of the censorship filter took me a while. Who knows how many errors are out there?

As a reader pointed out to me, it is likely that whoever clicks on a blacklisted site, for whatever reason, may end up with an automated black mark in his or her company's dossier.

"Looks at sex sites! Fired." That's what we're coming to if we let this go on.

Countless companies use Websense. Apparently Wall Street likes the company because it's lean and mean.

Lean for sure, since it's clear that it doesn't have many people checking the blacklist's validity. I never even got an apology from Websense.

The bigger questions are why blacklists exist and why they are used by Americans who have been promoting the open Internet and its benefits.

My final example is just as bad.

A Catholic high school in New Jersey banned all student online activity, at home or school. This includes chat rooms, blogging, and message boards. The lame excuse was that the rule would protect the students from predators.

The fact is that today's students, from about the eighth grade, are all online, and a good portion of them are members of the LiveJournal community, where they blog all sorts of things of interest for their friends and families. It's a way of life.

Parents can use these resources to see who their kids are hanging out with, since these journals are often detailed.

More importantly, looking at their kids' blogs can give parents insights into the teaching practices and quality at a school, since the kids will bluntly and openly comment on the teachers. That's the real reason that keeping the kids offline is so important to the school.

While American schools talk a big game about parental involvement, if it actually happens the schools want no part of it.

All censorship mechanisms are bad for society. If students are slandering people online or giving out personal information to strangers, take them aside and talk to them. Is it that hard to do?

Corporations and agencies should be ashamed of themselves for limiting access to the Internet with onerous and faulty filters.

If employees are wasting time looking at porn at work, fire them. Is this so difficult to do?

Laziness seems to be a thread here. Companies should hire better people in the first place. Accidentally finding a porn site and then getting stuck on it just doesn't happen nearly as often as it did five years ago.

The irony remains: Freedom-loving America is so critical of everyone else who denies people free speech, but that's just what we're doing: censoring, spying, blacklisting. Shame!

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Go off topic with John Dvorak.

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