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Why filtering laws just won't work

After parents raised concerns about their children and the Internet, Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act. The Supreme Court later declared it unconstitutional, but the president of People For the American Way, Ralph G. Neas, explains why there's an even more fundamental flaw with the bill.

In the wake of a federal court's unanimous decision declaring the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) unconstitutional, supporters of the mandatory Internet filtering law have not only appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court but have also escalated their rhetoric in ways that mislead parents and the public about the issues at stake.

CIPA was a one-size-fits-all mandate that required public libraries to install filtering software on all computers--even those used by adults--or sacrifice critical federal funding.

Parents have legitimate concerns when their children are surfing the Web, but CIPA was not a genuine solution.

Parents have legitimate concerns when their children are surfing the Web, but CIPA was not a genuine solution. It treated adults as if they were children, did very little to protect real children, ignored the proper role of parents, and posed a genuine threat to our First Amendment freedoms.

Nevertheless, religious right groups such as Concerned Women for America have misrepresented CIPA and tried to play on parents' fears. In an article on the group's Web site, spokeswoman Jan LaRue mischaracterizes CIPA as a "funding law" that "only requires blocking of material that is obscene, child pornography and material harmful to minors." Without CIPA, LaRue insists, our public libraries would become "dirty peep shows."

That dodges the critical issue of how the filtering law would have worked in practice. Indeed, the federal court found that the typical Internet filter blocks a lot of useful material that would in no way reflect the law's purpose. The court cited one test that found "overblocking" by filters denied access to Web sites for aspiring dentists, a cancer treatment center in Louisiana, and a state Assembly candidate in California.

Filtering software is designed in such a way that makes it virtually impossible to block photographs or other visual images that might be troubling to parents.

Underblocking by filters is also a problem. Filtering software is designed in such a way that makes it virtually impossible to block photographs or other visual images that might be troubling to parents. Every day, millions of Internet pages are added or altered. This fact, the court said, makes it "impossible...to develop a filter that neither underblocks nor overblocks a substantial amount of speech."

The ever-changing nature of the Internet also proves problematic for mandatory filtering laws. Web pages that are blocked by filtering software are often replaced at some point with completely different content. However, the court stated that because "filtering companies do not engage in systematic re-review of their category lists," such changes are likely to go unnoticed.

Under CIPA, all of these factors would have denied constitutionally protected speech to some 14 million citizens who rely on public library computers to fully research health, art, medicine and other topics on the Internet.

Many parents choose to use filtering software that reflects their own values and preferences, but they make that choice voluntarily--not by government fiat. And many parents recognize that filtering software does not free them of their supervisory role. Privacy screens, Internet user agreements and educational outreach to kids are among the other sensible and constitutionally sound options for parents and library patrons.

But for many advocates, rhetoric prevails over reality. Family Research Council President Ken Connor argues that the CIPA ruling "reflects the double standard that exists where the federal courts protect kids from the so-called dangers of 'religious' speech but fully expose them to the perils of pornography."

Yet, ironically, in its decision, the court noted that among the constitutionally protected speech that many filters blocked were Web sites for a church in Arkansas, a Christian orphanage in Honduras and a Knights of Columbus chapter in Nevada.

Interestingly, even the Web site of the American Family Association--which has supported CIPA--has been blocked by a leading producer of filtering software apparently because of the group's vehemently anti-gay rhetoric.

The federal court explained that CIPA would "necessarily restrict patrons'" access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment."

To suggest, however, as some pro-censorship groups have, that public libraries will turn into "peep shows" without a mandatory filtering law is not only false and inflammatory, but it disregards the many reasonable options that exist to protect children.