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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 17:37 GMT
Can filtering the web work?
Web user
American civil liberties groups have gone to court to challenge a federal law which requires schools and libraries to filter access to the internet.

The law was adopted to prevent children from accessing web pornography. It requires libraries to install filtering software and threatens to withdraw federal funding from those which fail to do so.

Librarians insist that the filtering software can let porn through, while blocking sites which have nothing to do with sex trade.

But advocates of the law say that filtering software has vastly improved since the measure was adopted.

Is the government right to filter internet usage? Can such filtering ever be successful?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Who will be checking what the Government is filtering? Civil rights groups perform a vital role in challenging governments and forcing scrutiny of legislation - which is exactly what is happening here. One wonders why they continue to bother when subjected to abuse from the likes of "Gerry, Scotland".
Richard Gregory, UK

It is effectively censorship aimed at the poor

Alan De Brun, UK
This proposal will apply censorship to those who do not have access in the privacy of their own home - in the main - those who do are the lower ends of the income scale. Therefore it is effectively censorship aimed at the poor. This can hardly be considered equitable.
Alan De Brun, UK

The United States constitution grants the right to free speech and a free press. It doesn't mention the right to information that has been censored before you read it. Thomas Jefferson said in 1775 that "it is better to have newspapers and no government than government without newspapers" which is why a free and democratic country has no need for censorship.
Andrew McPherson, New Zealand

The danger of definite censorship far outweighs the danger of possible exposure to certain material. What's that American expression again, "Clear and Present Danger"? That danger here is governmental control of media.
David, UK

I think it is a gross invasion of ones privacy, big brother at it again, I say no, no, no!
Con_Lenihan, Australia

Presumably libraries and schools are manned by competent adults who are aware of the presence of pornography on the internet, and can take responsible and reasonable countermeasures

Quentin Holt, New Zealand
I don't think governments have the right to be our moral guardians. Presumably libraries and schools are manned by competent adults who are aware of the presence of pornography on the internet, and can take responsible and reasonable countermeasures. There is a dangerous precedent being set here - restriction of information distribution by government statute. There is no greater friend of democracy than a well-informed voter. Citizens of a democracy must challenge anything that restricts their access to information of their choice.
Quentin Holt, New Zealand

The only people restricted by filtering are those wishing to pursue an illegal activity (Piracy, drug making, bomb making...) or those after porn. Things that should at least be kept in the privacy of people's homes. Not where children can get at them.
Merlin, Czech

This is in no way censorship. The law just says that the Government won't give money to libraries that don't filter. If the libraries want to allow porn, they will just have to do it with their own money. I bet the BBC would lose funding if they started putting up porn on their site!
Scott Hines, USA

Install filtering software, but make sure that it can be disabled for those of us over the age of 18, or that there are terminals with no filtering that you need ID to use. So many people constantly go on about perverts and paedophiles, but that simple fact is that there are a lot of us out there who are pretty much normal and are interested in some of the mad weird things in the world. Personally, I'm 25 and I know that I and my friends enjoy madcap antics and learning the truth about many things that are normally taboo.
Paul Charters, England

I personally, would prefer that my children never see the kind of websites that we are referring to here

PhilT, Oman
I should expect that the schools that I send my children to would want to enforce a certain amount of website censoring without being told by the government or me what to do. Unfortunately, there seems to be a certain amount of 'it's not our responsibility' attitude from certain quarters, making it necessary for a responsible government to bring in this kind of legislation. I personally, would prefer that my children never see the kind of websites that we are referring to here and if it takes legislation to accomplish that, then that is fine by me. 'Human rights' - rubbish.
PhilT, Oman

Using the software in public schools I can accept, but I think it's a bad idea to impose it on public libraries. Sure, they can refuse funding in order to maintain full access to the internet. Sounds a little like blackmail to me though. There's no reason there can't be two sections designated in a public library. One for children (with filtering) and one for adults (without). The biggest problem I have with filtering in the first place is the inability of the government and/or the software to differentiate between pornography and art that may contain nudity. Let's not forget that Ashcroft was offended by a statue that exposed a breast, and ordered it covered up by a cloth. And what about educational material such as human anatomy? What about reproduction, STDs and birth control information? How ignorant are we going to make our youth before the world is "child-proof" enough? I'd prefer to see the Attorney General (and Congress) tracking down the perverts that are illegally posting obscene materials. Or even work to figure out a way to make sure that pornographic material really is access-restricted according to age.
A.A., US

Yes filters should be in place. My suggestion is to change the top-level domain from www to sex. This way people looking for porn can find it easier and filters can be applied more easily. Porn is on the web to make money. Children do not own credit cards, and most sites will not be interested in children accessing their site. It is then up to the parents to apply the filters.
Antony, UK

All the innovations on the net have come about as a direct result of the demand for internet porn

Vince Warrington, UK
I find it funny that people are getting so worked up about porn on the net, because if it weren't for the porn industry the internet would not be used by children at home, school or in a library. Why? All the innovations on the net - Online shopping and banking, streaming video, MPEGs, JPEGs, fast modems, broadband and, yes, even filtering software have come about as a direct result of the demand for internet porn. If it didn't exist, the net would nowadays be like it was 15 years ago, used only by a few universities and 'Geeks'. Before everyone starts crying foul, you should understand that without the porn industry little Johnny would not be able to access the wealth of information out there on the net.
Vince Warrington, UK

When children are browsing the web at home it's up to their parents to monitor what they look at. But schools and libraries cannot afford to have a responsible adult monitoring every PC so filtering serves a purpose. All you have to do if you feel that the filter is blocking access to a non-pornographic, non-hate, non-violent web site is tell the administrator and they'll arrange for it to be let through. It's as easy as that. And as for the adults that complain, public library computers are not there for you to access porn on. They're there for research. If you desperately want to look at pornographic sites you should arrange to access the web somewhere else.
Christine, UK

Good then, lose the Federal funding. Go, and see if the State gives funding. Fine then, see if the city the library is in gives funding. Watch the libraries close, this is what Civil Liberties people probably want anyway. Sure, attach it to kids, make them feel bad, what do you really care? Next they will be telling us that they are the only ones allowed Civil Liberties. Maybe they want adults to open up adult's shops for the Internet, and then they could all go to jail. Try another Planet to live on.

It is against personal freedom and I am against installing any such filtering software.
Farhan, Pakistan

Filtering isn't a new concept; we have banned books and edited speeches for public and political reasons

Susan, USA
Filtering isn't a new concept; we have banned books and edited speeches for public and political reasons. As a defence mechanism, the filters are minor, but necessary in some places. Schools, libraries, etc., will not have the resources to monitor the sites each child accesses. At least the unwitting typos & misdirected attempts to access reasonable sites would be avoided. In an ideal world, we would not need filters.
Susan, USA

How painfully stupid. The filters do not work. About all they are any good for is to get rid of intellectual sites that explore the world AIDS epidemic and contraception information. Let everyone in the library see what is on the screen by placing them in plain sight and get your nose out of everyone else's business. My grand kids are only allowed to use the computer under supervision by their parents, teachers or myself. So far absolutely no problems except for the e-mail adverts sent to me.
Vit, USA

Who would go to the library to view pornographic websites anyway? Not my idea of a large afternoon.
Matt, US

We have a filtering system like this at my school/college on all the computers, and it does work

Matt, London UK
We have a filtering system like this at my school/college on all the computers, and it does work. It limits you to general academic studies and research on the net and blocks you from that which is thought of as uneducational. The system is implemented and run by the school and has nothing to do with the government (independent school), and so I think it would be better for the schools to decide what is needed. However it is quite a general scheme and some sites are blocked even for having the slightest hint of social information, fun, games or whatever. And of course people always eventually find a way round it, but it would be very unwise to venture there at a school such as mine anyway!
Matt, London UK

A very important point to remember is that there are no regulations governing the companies that provide the filters on what they filter. They do all filter pornography. Some also filter family planning sites, union or socialist sites, civil liberties sites, as well as many others that clearly have nothing to do with porn. When you give powers of censor to someone without restricting that power, you give them control over everything you read. Anyone checked to see if BBC World News is now a blocked site for having opened this discussion? Most sites that criticize censor-ware end up on the blocked list.
Kyle Smith, Canada

Internet porn has no more of a place in a public library than any other porn. All this talk of big brother is, I must say, nonsense. Freedom of thought and expression is not premised on a policy of unfettered access to anything by anyone anywhere. Are schools limiting thought in an Orwellian way by remaining porn-free environments? Are schools practicing Orwellian thought control when they require students to think about math during math class, as opposed to other subjects, let alone porn? No and no. There is a place for everything. The place for porn is not in a library, at least where it is accessible by children. Adults who seek pornographic materials can find them if they choose. This is simply not a freedom of thought or speech issue.
Tom, USA

These filters are, in the main, useless, as one of my colleagues found out after receiving an email from our IT department admonishing him for searching for "Scunthorpe".
Gareth, UK

No-one is saying you can't access this in the privacy of your own home

Craig Miller, UK
Yes it is censorship, but:
a) Libraries, schools, etc are public services are should be controlled as such. No-one is saying you can't access this in the privacy of your own home.
b) Some things in life need to be censored - you wouldn't want your little darling looking up the recipe for Ecstasy now, would you?
Craig Miller, UK

What the government is requiring is not censorship. Access is not permitted at that location. This does not prevent someone accessing the data from another location nor does it prevent suppliers from supplying the information.
John Alkire, UK/USA

Whilst this unfortunately reeks of the Big Brother syndrome, I still feel that restricting undesirable website access from government institutions is probably a responsible stance to take. There is, however, the ubiquitous freedom of rights issue to consider - and also whether the official governmental position is reflected by the average internet user. A less inflammatory long term solution might be a multilateral agreement to outlaw internet pornography sites. But in principle I agree with the sentiments behind the proposals - even though they will probably have very little practical value.
Chris B, England

It may be censorship but it is no bad thing in this instance. Would any responsible parents be happy letting their children visit a public library which stocked Triple-x pornography on its shelves? Parents can "filter" internet access at home - the tools are provided by all ISP's - and they should expect similar controls in public access areas.
Peter Sykes, UK

Political Correctness is quickly overwhelming our freedoms here in the US

Fred Barnes, USA
Our local library (where I work) does not use filtering software. But the monitors are set up in such a way that they face the information desk and the main entrance. Surprise surprise, when I take a look at the cache files and history, I find nothing naughty. People won't surf for porn when other people are able to see pictures on their screens. Much better than ineffective or overreactive software. But alas, Martin in the UK is right. Political Correctness is quickly overwhelming our freedoms here in the US, and our library will probably be forced to "dumb down" our services to a sterile, safe, no-thought-required, no-offence-possible level.
Fred Barnes, United States

In my local library there are two sections of computers. One group of filtered computers for children and one group of UNFILTERED computers for adults. This seems to work very well. I have no problem with censoring children. I do have problems if the Government decides that it can censor adults. There are no plans to censor adults that I am aware of.
Chronos, USA

It sounds reasonable to filter out hate, pornographic or violent website from our children and I make sure that this happens whenever my children go on the net. However filters can be used to remove sites that the people in power do not want us to see and we could do very little about it. Personally I prefer to manually filter my children┐s viewing and not rely on a piece of ineffective and potentially dangerous software to do it for me.
Ian Thomas, England

There is only one reason the internet is full of porn - people want it. We (adults) only have ourselves to blame - perhaps if we spent a little less time downloading dirt then we wouldn't be faced with this problem.
Chris, UK

Can filtering the web work? No - filtering is totally ineffective. Its up to the parents to act as a filter for their children surfing the web - If I can control my children's viewing on the internet, I can see why others can't too. Okay, however hard you try, you are going to one day accidentally click on a porn site - so what - just simply click the back button before the site has time to download properly. Children do need to be supervised on the net as it is really an adult 'toy' with a small small children's section.
David LJ, Isle of Man UK

This does amount to censorship

Euan Gray, UK
This does amount to censorship, whatever weasel words are used to avoid it. However, it is pointless. Censoring software tends not to work very well, and until someone develops software which can recognise images as (a) images of human beings and (b) indecent images of human beings, and furthermore which has sufficient artificial intelligence to apply rules of morality to arbitrary images and text, the attempt will fail. It is utterly wasteful to try and protect people from themselves in this nannyish manner - after all, here in the UK one can marry (and therefore legally have sex) at 16 but one cannot legally view erotic images at that age. This is illogical. Furthermore, what right does any government have to decree what its people may and may not look at? Where is the philosophical justification for this? Does the government's idea of morality necessarily reflect that of the people? Who decides what is and is not decent? Where is the line drawn? Ask yourself this before condoning censorship - you would likely condemn any foreign government that tried to filter access to information, so how do you justify your own government doing it?
Euan Gray, UK

I find it ironic that, as usual, the very country preaching personal freedom and liberty to the rest of the world is the same one that is implementing such controls on it's own people.
Martin, UK

I would not want my children to access those sites at all

Matthew T, England
Of course they are right to filter out pornographic material at schools and libraries. I would not want my children to access those sites at all, and although the filters do not work 100% of the time, at least they are trying to do something instead of ignoring it. The people challenging this law are pathetic, as it has nothing to do with civil liberties, just protecting children from obscene sites. No one is threatening their rights to access that material, just protecting the innocence of children. If this law goes then what? Will they try to allow 5 year olds to watch pornographic videos, films and to buy dirty magazines?
Matthew T, England

Filtering information by the government is censorship, regardless of the attempted excuses given, and should be treated as such. The internet is vast, constantly changing and global, so filtering software cannot possibly blacklist all "offensive" material - plus who decides what is offensive and what is not? The only workable solution would be a white list, but we would then end up on a situation where we are only allowed to read "government approved" sites. This is even without going into the global aspect - if a UK person on holiday in Germany, logs into a Dutch ISP, to access a site in the USA, which shows information on Australia, which country's laws apply? All? One?
Martin, England, UK

Yes, everyone should have the right to read hatemongering, racist or extreme pornographic materials in public libraries. Not.
Antony, UK

It's about time someone did something to stem the flood of porn that has now reached saturation point in our society

B Thompson, UK
The government has every right to do this. It's about time someone did something to stem the flood of porn that has now reached saturation point in our society. All we're talking about here anyway is filtering in schools and colleges. If you want to you can still go home and enjoy all the demented online porn and violence that your heart desires on your own PC. The filtering software now is very good. True, it may occasionally block out the odd non-porn site, but this is rare and would make little difference to the informational needs of the average library patron. Frankly, I cannot believe that you people are not concerned about the exposure of your children to online porn. We are not talking here about pictures of 'naked ladies', we all know full well that the kind of material that is all over the internet is infinitely more extreme than this. No child should be exposed to this, and we hadn't seen that kind of material when we were twice their age. If you warp your children's mind with this now, you'll pay the price later when they grow up!
B Thompson, UK

No filtering means children are exposed to pornography. Filtering means governments, corporations and unaccountable people will control our thoughts. Cynical maybe, but it's the way of the world... The only solution is to have a filtering system which is agreed on by the people. And that is very different from electing politicians.... This is the single most important issue outside of war for people in the west, now that starvation is not an issue...
Rhys Jaggar, England

We are in a halfway house as far as the internet is concerned. Everything is available, yet we are relatively anonymous

Matt, Amsterdam, Netherlands (ex. UK)
This is certainly a tough one. We are in a halfway house as far as the internet is concerned. Everything is available, yet we are relatively anonymous. Actions being taken to align user profiles (through shared LDAP etc) will bring to reality the idea of an online persona. Age restrictions can become a reality under such a scheme, allowing blocking of sites that do not authenticate the user. However, as usual, Microsoft is making things difficult, developing its own private version of LDAP and creating the unwieldy Passport structure. Until we reach this point I guess we have to use the ineffective filter software available, though I have to admit it is rather poor.
Matt, Amsterdam, Netherlands (ex. UK)

I have no problem at all with a library, school or parent choosing to use filtering software. However, I don't believe that the use of such software needs to be mandated by government. People are capable of using their own common sense to decide the circumstances in which such software is useful.
Stephen, England

Oh look, legislators refuse to listen to people who actually work on the front line, telling them that their legislation doesn't work

Oh look, legislators refuse to listen to people who actually work on the front line, telling them that their legislation doesn't work. There's a shock. On a matter of principle these resources should be free (as in speech). If people access inappropriate content then sanctions should be in place to deny them future access, which is, after all, a privilege. If legislators are so bothered about children accessing inappropriate material, why don't they release resources to pay for supervision and monitoring? That would be far more constructive and more useful for children: to be told about the possible perils out there on line. You shouldn't pad them with cotton wool. After all what will happen when they use the web elsewhere?

To Sam, UK

  • Government filtering of materials in schools and libraries is not limiting the content of the internet nor ultimate access, it is only imposing limits on what can be accessed by children using it's (governments) resources.
  • Schools and libraries are arms of the federal, state and local governments in the USA and are not totally autonomous and never have been
  • As schools and libraries have the responsibility of acting in loco parentis most of the time, they are responsible for monitoring internet usage by kids in their care. It is very easy to fall back on the "leave it to the parents" argument. But when schools and libraries act in loco parentis, it's not that simple.
I'm totally opposed to government restricting adults in their own homes. But if you are at work or in a school or a library, you are using someone else's resources and it is their right to determine what you can and can't do with those resources. And when you are talking children using public resources, limitation of access should be expected. Finally, free speech is not absolute. It never was. It must always be weighed against the potential harm. Showing snuff films for profit wouldn't be protected and neither should showing porn to kids.
Shelly, USA

In my view the state has no place in regulating access to or content of the internet. Each step in this direction is dangerous, even when the reasons for it are superficially good, such as restricting the ability of children to view porn. Schools and libraries should be free to implement their own policies. The internet is not a kid's playground; it is primarily an adult medium. The people directly responsible for children are responsible for monitoring their internet usage - not the rest of us. Not to mention the fact that this 'filtering' is usually ineffective anyway.
Sam, UK

Gerry asks "Are these civil groups now defending the rights of perverts to access sexual material about children, etc?" No, Gerry, they are doing no such thing. They are opposing the imposition of software which often prevents access to inoffensive material which the filtering company has decided to ban, while often letting porn through. They are opposing the mandatory treatment of adults as if they are children. They are opposing libraries being forced to spend money on software which does not work.
Robert Hinkley, UK

Are these civil groups now defending the rights of perverts to access sexual material about children, etc, if so they should blow out of the ear?
Gerry, Scotland

See also:

26 Mar 02 | Americas
US internet porn law challenged
22 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
US tightens controls on websites
08 Oct 01 | Americas
Websites censored in terror scare
08 Aug 01 | Americas
US breaks child cyber-porn ring
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