ACLU paper slams filters, ratings

The American Civil Liberties Union warns that the use of ratings and blocking systems will inevitably lead to censorship in cyberspace.

3 min read
The American Civil Liberties Union today sent a paper to government officials and leaders in the Internet industry warning that the use of ratings and blocking systems will inevitably lead to censorship.

The white paper, "Fahrenheit 451:2: Is Cyberspace Burning?" reflects the ACLU's concern that the advocacy of ratings systems and blocking software following the Supreme Court's landmark Communications Decency Act decision will make it difficult to find certain sites.

Soon after the Supreme Court struck down the CDA, bills were proposed and talks began on how to use blocking software and self-regulation to protect Netizens--especially children--from sex and violence on the Internet. Filtering software and ratings systems currently are seen as popular mechanisms for managing content on the Internet.

The release of the paper comes three weeks after the White House's summit on Internet censorship and outlines concerns that arose from the summit, where President Clinton advocated ratings systems and blocking software.

"The ACLU and others in the cyberliberties community were genuinely alarmed by the tenor of the White House summit and the unabashed enthusiasm for technological fixes that will make it easier to block or render invisible controversial speech," the report states.

Of particular concern to the ACLU, which was a plaintiff in the CDA case, were reports that Netscape Communications would join Microsoft by offering the Platform for Internet Content Selection rating standards and that search engines might exclude sites that refuse to supply ratings.

After the summit, news reports said the president of Lycos challenged other search engines to exclude sites without ratings. But ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt said the statement was later toned down. Search engines and directories such as Yahoo have pushed for sites to voluntarily rate themselves.

Still, Steinhardt, who wrote the report, said the emphasis on search engines and browsers using ratings systems and blocking software would push some sites so far back into cyberspace it would equate to censorship. For example, he said, the Stop Prisoner Rape site may have a rating similar to a pornography site because it discusses both crime and sex.

"It will change the architecture of the Internet to make it censor-friendly and will enable the federal government to pass the Son of the CDA," Steinhardt added.

The ACLU also expressed concern over legislation being drafted by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), which would make it a crime to misrate a site. The legislation advocates the use of blocking software and ratings.

Representatives from one group that has worked with Murray in writing the legislation feel that the ACLU is jumping the gun. Dianne Martin, president of the Recreational Software Advisory Council, a group offering site-rating systems, said there's no harm in warning users about the content they're about to bump into.

"In one sense, I feel the ACLU blows this out of proportion," Martin noted. "This [rating system] is made for a very small portion of the Internet. We don't consider providing people additional information censorship."

But the ACLU is insistent that the Internet be treated like print media, as the Supreme Court outlined in its CDA decision, and therefore should not be subjected to ratings or blocking software.

"What we are really saying to the Internet industry is slow down," Steinhardt said. "There is no need to rush forward with blocking schemes without considering what their effect will be on the character of the Internet."