In Critique of Pure Tolerance
On Friday, a panel of federal judges struck down a law requiring public libraries to install Internet filters to block access to some Internet sites. The court was right to block the government's efforts. The government was right to try to provide individuals with some protection, but wrong to mandate it as law.
The court declared the Children's Internet Protection Act to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it requires libraries to use technology that blocks access to legitimate sites on the World Wide Web. The legislation, signed into law two years ago by President Clinton, would have required public libraries to use the electronic blocks starting July 1 or lose millions of dollars in federal funding for computers and Internet access.
The ruling stated that it is currently impossible, given the Internet's size, rate of growth, rate of change, and architecture—and given the state of the art of automated classification systems—to develop a filter that can properly block speech. Courts should overturn laws that are overly broad. Free speech is the most cherished of our freedoms. The idea of governments banning or blocking speech is wrong, but Americans should be able to protect themselves and their families from speech they find objectionable.
Surf the Web and you will find that the world is literally at your fingertips. That fact is both fascinating and frightening. Images of the world's people, places, and events bring us closer together. They also remind us that we come from vastly different cultures. Are we as individuals able to handle this sensory overload? Are we emotionally and psychologically ready to process all of these images? Should Daniel Pearl's murder be posted to the Web? Should extreme sexual content be posted to the Web? Are community standards oxymoronic when applied to the World Wide Web? If technology is not up to task of filtering images and speech, how can we as individuals? Despite those difficulties, filtering is a role for individuals to make for themselves, not for governments.
It is not just pornography that litters the Web. Commercial web sites use pop-up ads and cookies to drown Internet users with products. Our email sites are inundated with unwanted spam mail. Technology can provide filters to give Internet users the ability to turn off the commercial onslaught. Groups that defeated this legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Internet providers, should promote policies, procedures, and technology to help Internet users filter unwanted sites and email. The plaintiffs claimed that the existing filters worked poorly. Once the filters are as profitable as the products being marketed on the Internet, their efficiency will improve dramatically.
Filters are a good thing, but the hands of individuals should turn the filter switches on and off, not the hand of government.
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