Banned in Boston

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 9 May 2008

Thanks to a mayor looking for votes from the moral right, children in Boston are no longer allowed to access Internet sites offering information about feminism or counseling on eating disorders. Odd? Indeed. But when a politician turns over the authority to censor what our children see online to a company looking to maintain a competitive advantage while advancing its own agendas, anything is possible.

Internet filtering software sounds like a good idea on the surface. It prevents a Web browser from accessing sites with pornography and other subjects parents might not like their children to see. The mayor of Boston has ordered that just such a filtering product, called CyberPatrol, be installed in all public schools and libraries in his city.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that CyberPatrol blocks access to lots of things other than pornography. Among the currently banned sites are a 130-nation network of environment activists called Environet, a Jewish community resources guide called The Jewish Bulletin, the anti-censorship archives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the anti-religious Usenet group alt.atheist. Worse yet, the program’s manufacturers, claiming market considerations, keep the list of banned sites a secret. We don’t even know what we aren’t allowed to see. Maybe this is why these programs are finding such a huge market in Communist China.

However reprehensible the practice of government-mandated censorship, when the Nazis banned books at least they made the list of undesirable authors public. By keeping their lists a trade secret, software companies appoint themselves the new arbiters of cultural decency. When you stop to consider what sorts of people decide to get into the censorship business in the first place, it becomes a bit clearer how feminist, activist, atheist, and free speech sites end up getting banned along with the bestiality photos.

Filtering programs like Cyberpatrol give parents the illusion of control over their children’s web wanderings, but actually surrender it to total strangers whose true cultural and commercial objectives might far outweigh their dedication to keeping kids safe from mental harm. By publishing outlandish stories about children stumbling into the hands of a cyber-pederasts, the mainstream media help effectively coerce well-meaning parents to relinquish their authority over their own children’s upbringing to businessmen and politicians.

Believe it or not, a city government in the United States of America has officially granted the authority to censor its citizens to a private company whose criteria for banning is never disclosed. Is there a name for this new style of governance? Corporate fascism?

Not to worry. The programs don’t really work all-too well. Sure, they prevent public-owned computers from accessing sites that are deemed objectionable; but the lists of banned sites are regularly cracked by anti-censorship computer hackers, and then posted to Usenet groups and Web sites. Ironically, this only helps to highlight the material that the censors would hope to quash. Kids circumvent the filter programs or log onto private terminals and then seek out the banned sites with renewed vigor.

It reminds me of the British schoolboys of the eighteen-hundreds, whose classical Greek texts were relieved of their own questionable passages. Since the books retained their line numbers in the margins, it was easy for the students to determine the exact placement of the excised text and then turn to the library for the unabridged versions of books like Plato’s Symposium, in which the ancient philosophers discussed the merits of sex with slave boys. Ultimately, isolating and thus spotlighting so-called questionable behaviors only serves to fetishize them.

While I might personally disagree with parents who hope to limit their children’s access to the online world, I wholly support those who might choose to do so. But parents who think their children’s Internet meandering can really be regulated with a software package have been lulled into a false sense of security. More disastrously, when they allow themselves to be intimidated into permitting a private company to make these sorts of decisions for them and their communities, they are inviting social tyranny by non-elected and unaccountable entities.

If you or your community are planning to institute a system of Internet filtering, at least make sure the list of Internet sites being banned and the criteria for such selection is in your control. Anything short of this might take the cultural agenda out of the hands of pornographers only to give it to someone worse.