Albion Monitor /Commentary

Internet Filters Censor More Than Smut

by Andy Oram

Clinton and Gore are lashing up with right-wing "family values" groups
(AR) CAMBRIDGE -- Seventeen year-old Virginia represents the kind of success story that should make any proponent of Internet access proud. Before going online she suffered from "a bout of clinical depression that had been with me since middle school, a condition that left me vulnerable to causing myself injury, marring that pretty skin, and thinking about committing suicide."

Reading articles at her favorite Web site "was like a lifeline for me ... Nowhere else could I read about people who were experiencing everything I was, and not feel like a freak for being able to relate to them ... Now I'm the one getting e-mail from people, and now I'm the one trying to help other people get a glimpse of what it's like, of how to cope and how it really happens."

This sounds like a story that President Clinton and Vice President Gore could trot out whenever they want to promote their goals for the Information Highway. But instead, Clinton and Gore are trying to make stories like Virginia's impossible. They are lashing up with right-wing "family values" groups and companies offering censorship in software.

The U.S. and European Commission make no secret of their hope that Internet providers will install filters, giving individuals even less choice
Virginia is a lesbian, and her support group at Oasis Magazine is one of the many sites for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals blocked by the software being promoted last week at the heavily publicized Internet /Online Summit: Focus on Children in Washington.

While the summit promises "parental controls," few of these products actually give control to parents. Instead, they maintain secret lists of sites they consider inappropriate for children, including many that have nothing about sex or violence.

Many public libraries have been forced by local governments to reverse their traditional role and use Internet filters to deny access to information instead of facilitating it. Both the U.S. government and the European Commission make no secret of their hope that Internet providers will install these filters on their servers, giving individuals even less choice.

Would-be censors "don't want us to tell you about things like rape and violence, and don't seem to care that many of you are raped and that many of you are victims of violence," says Clinton Fein of the site, which challenged the Communications Decency Act. And certainly, filters would take away these children's key capacity to talk anonymously about their victimization on support groups that focus on sexual abuse.

Some sites that are blocked because they talk about sex can actually save lives. How many cases of AIDS or unwanted pregnancies could be avoided if young people could get access to Web sites that discuss the safe-sex practices many schools (not to mention parents) refuse to teach?

Even talk about abortion is blocked by some filters. We might as well just shield our children from all the controversial political issues of the day, then release them at age 18 to join the rest of the ignorant voting population.

Gay and lesbian sites that contain no pornography -- but lots of political information and psychological help -- are increasingly offering information about the threat of censorship from government laws and Internet filtering products
Attorney General Reno spoke at last week's summit, absurdly conflating access to pornography with scares of "luring" young people away from home. But the young people who go online with concerns aboutsexual orientation hardly ever fall victim to luring -- rather, they find a helpful hand extended by people of the same age or slightly older, who can help combat depression and suicidal tendencies. "Traditional books and magazines are good resources, says Ben Jenkins of the Peacefire anti-censorship site, "but you can't use them to chat to with someone who's going through exactly what you're going through."

Here are a few more testimonials to the value of the Internet.

  • "Fooling around with married men, drinking alone, starving myself to avoid coherent thought, and chain smoking were only a few of the ways I mutilated my body and my self-esteem [before going online.] The lesbian message boards allowed me to learn and question without the stigma that my age carries in real life ... Within an hour, I found an essay on gay Christians that proved that I could love God with impunity; within two, I found an online 'zine just for gay youth." -- Riki, 18

  • "If it weren't for the Internet, I'm sure that I would have killed myself by now. [Online] I met someone who always had an open ear to listen." -- Shaun, 18

  • "Throughout Jr. High and my freshman year of High School, I was deeply depressed and even suicidal. Finding only hatred for queers among my friends and family, I turned to the online world ... Only through knowledge can we acheive understanding, and the censorship of such websites as Oasis would only push us as a nation and global community further back into a society dominated by one belief system." -- Will, 15

These stories were reported to me personally, but many more can be found in a report titled "Access Denied," released this month by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), one of the organizations -- including Oasis, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Quirk at America Online, PFLAG, !OutProud! and many others -- that offer online support for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

These sites contain no pornography, but lots of political information and psychological help. And, increasingly, information about the threat of censorship from government laws and filtering products. It is important to protect these sites and the people who desperately need them. Don't install a filter on your computer, and don't let your Internet provider or computer vendor install them as a routine matter.

Andy Oram is moderator of the Cyber Rights mailing list for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and an editor at O'Reilly & Associates

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Albion Monitor December 11, 1997 (

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