Are we saving the Net or censoring for dollars?

Monday, September 20, 1999

Earlier this month, an international media conglomerate and the Internet Content Ratings Association convened an Internet Content Summit in Munich, Germany, to present 12 recommendations for taming the rambunctious Internet. The key recommendation was for an international rating system that would enable the filtering of content.

Such proposals are gaining momentum as the titans of technology such as AOL, Microsoft, IBM, Bertelsmann and others take the place of government officials in encouraging the regulation of speech on the Internet.

Last week, a plan to restrict “harmful” content was unveiled in Paris by the Global Business Dialog on Electronic Commerce.

A World Summit of Regulators on the Internet will meet in Paris, starting Nov. 30, to mull similar proposals.

And, of course, the campaign for voluntary rating of Internet material continues unabated here in the United States.

Government officials seeking to exploit ignorance and panic over the Internet used to be the chief proponents of regulating Internet speech. Now, commercial interests, assisted by a number of scholars, have shouldered them aside. They campaign under the banner of saving the children, warding off government regulation or “mainstreaming the Net.” But the bottom line seems to be making the Internet safe for commerce.

In their zeal to “balance” freedom of expression with commercial convenience, they overlook the fact that they will be strip-mining the Internet. When it's all over, what once was a vibrant and inviting environment will be nothing but a scarred and barren landscape.

As this campaign to tame and mine the Net unfolds, the mainstream news media have taken only cursory notice of the free-speech implications. Free-speech advocates find themselves shouting into the winds of certain change. Early adopters shake tiny tech fists in the faces of the titans, daring the regulators to violate their space. And censor-minded government officials feign disinterest while salivating over the prospects of control of a medium they fear and loathe.

What's wrong with self-regulation through a voluntary rating system, anyway?

First, it would not be voluntary. No proposal would be getting serious consideration if the threat of government censorship didn't exist. And the “self” doing the actual regulation would be only a small, but powerful, segment of the Internet universe.

Second, there is only one reason for a rating system: to enable filtering software that targets controversial or unpopular speech. Even if it were possible to define “unapproved” speech, too much “approved” speech still would be silenced.

Third, a rating and filtering system irreparably changes the nature and culture of the Internet. It inserts several layers of speech arbitration between the speaker and the listener. The goal of interactivity and true communication becomes impossible. The ideal of empowerment and democratization becomes a sham.

There are any number of reasons for resisting international standards for rating and filtering of Internet content:

  • Rating systems can't usefully accommodate a whole range of Web sites without compromising them; they include sites having to do with news, art, literature, medicine and science, music, video, photography and cartoons, to name just a few.
  • Rating systems impose such a burden on individual or small sites that they will disappear or become marginalized by large, commercial sites.
  • They encourage “upstream” restrictions on content for those who fail to rate or who don't rate according to guidelines and “templates.”
  • They set up standards so arbitrary and subjective that the exchange becomes a process of indoctrination or reinforcement rather than communication and enlightenment.
  • They offer no practical or fair way to rate the millions of conversations going on simultaneously in news groups, mail lists, and chat rooms.

Ultimately, such regimes would exile the Internet to a lesser world compared to other modes of communication, as pointed out by ACLU President Nadine Strossen. In response to the recommendations offered at the Munich summit, Strossen wrote that “calling upon Internet content providers and speakers to 'self-rate' their expression is no less contrary to the basic principles of free expression than a proposal that publishers of books and magazines 'self-rate' their publications, including all stories and articles, or a proposal that participants in street corner conversations rate their oral statements.”

Rating systems inevitably invite government involvement. Once the ratings are installed, politicians will want to keep the issue alive — and one sure way to gather headlines is to call for more detailed ratings. They will want to codify the rating system by incorporating it into laws. They will want to punish those who “mis-rate” their own speech. They will want to investigate those who might “violate” their own rating of their own speech.

There is clear evidence of that process in the rating system for television programming, to which the TV industry voluntarily succumbed in order to enable the V-chip regulations. We've seen it in federal and state proposals to use voluntary record labeling to restrict the marketing of music. We've seen it in the FTC's current inquiry into the marketing of products by the movie and record industries. And we are seeing it right now in congressional proposals to devise a universal rating system for all entertainment media.

The reality is that rating schemes are proposed for one reason only: to eliminate or restrict controversial or unpopular speech. That is anathema to the traditions and values represented by the First Amendment and how we have chosen to live our life as a nation. That same spirit infuses the Internet culture. Rating and filtering can lead only to a homogenization of thoughtful speech and a silencing of fringe speech, often the most crucial for a society that wishes to avoid intellectual stagnation.

There is an answer to those who feel speech on the Internet is too free. That is informed, intelligent users who make their own choices about what they access in their own homes. Anything other than that surrenders choice to third parties, many of whom are more interested in bending national and international conversations to their own agenda, whether political, social, religious or commercial.

Censorship is censorship, whether it's done directly by governments or delegated to willing agents more focused on making a profit than defending a principle.

It makes no difference whether speech is restricted by industry fiat or government decree. What gets lost in the rhetoric and rationalization is a rather simple formulation: To regulate speech is to control thought. To control thought is to consolidate power. To consolidate power is to kill freedom.

Paul McMasters can be contacted at