Censoring the Internet
Free communication protects many ideas that the virtue of truth embodies. However, indiscriminate broadcasting of information can do more harm than good. These ideas lie at the heart of the ongoing debate about censoring content on the Internet that is obscene or pornographic. Before the Internet age, when books, newspapers, radio, and television were the primary means of public communication, U.S. law had found a workable compromise between the need to preserve easy communication among adults and the need to protect children from seeing or hearing things they were not ready to digest. Hence, there were limitations on what could be heard or seen on radio and television (at least on certain channels during certain hours), and bookstores needed to ensure that their merchandise was displayed so that children could not access certain material.
Such compromises have proven much more difficult to arrange for the Internet. Several factors contribute to the problem. First, the Internet is so large and diffuse that monitoring and controlling it are nearly impossible. International cooperation would be required because of foreign web sites. Second, difficult technical challenges accompany attempting to restrict access to certain sites by certain people. While so-called blocking software can be installed on a computer to stop access to certain sites, the effectiveness of such software is questionable. Third, parental control over what their children see can be difficult to enforce because the children often know more about the Internet than their parents, and because parents can control computers only within their own homes.
In an attempt to solve the problem, the U.S. Congress enacted and the President signed the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The law banned web sites containing certain "indecent" words and imposed prison terms and stiff fines as penalties. However, the crudeness of the criteria for "indecent" material in effect unintentionally outlawed sites offering classic literature, education regarding sexual practices, and bulletin boards regarding breast cancer. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law the following year as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech, but the issue remains alive in Congress.
- Do you agree with the Supreme Court's decision?
- To what extent should the burden of protecting children from obscene material fall on parents as opposed to the society at large?
- What, if anything, should the government be doing to solve the problem?