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Peacefire: Unblocking information

Jon Katz
First Amendment Center scholar

10.23.98

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Last week, the pioneering Web site Peacefire.org, which has been struggling for three years to protect childrens' rights to free speech and unfiltered information — and access to the Internet — posted explicit instructions for disabling eight of the country's biggest blocking-software programs.

And AOL's parental controls may be next.

Until recently, the young have been helpless to fight back against pervasive censorship technologies deployed against their will in the name of their welfare and safety. That may have just changed.

In The Secret Museum, a valuable and original history of pornography, Walter Kendrick of Fordham University describes the shock that swept England in the last century when archeologists from the British Museum dug up the ruins of Pompeii and found yard-long penises painted on ancient walls and marble satyrs locked in eternal coitus with marble goats.

"The first question they asked," Kendrick wrote, "Was, 'What on earth were the Romans thinking of?' The second followed immediately: What will happen if vulnerable people see these things?"

The answer came quickly: Depravity will settle on women, children and the poor (they are predisposed to it); lust will flower in them (they bear its seeds already); they will rise up in wantonness, wrecking the achievements of three millenia — including us, their appointed guardians.

"Measures were taken," Kendrick reports. "Gates were set up and guards were set at them, under orders to admit only grown-up, well-to-do males into the Secret Museum."

Men don't dare talk about women that way any more, at least openly, but children are still routinely described in just that way.

No nation has ever struggled more determinedly to pick up the Victorians' fearful legacy than some American journalists, politicians and religious figures fighting obsessively to stem the flood of what we call pornography.

And no battle has been more fruitless or seems more hopeless. Although plenty of people make noise about the evils of sexual imagery, many more want to get, read or see some of it.

Pornography is now an $8 billion industry in America, reported U.S. News & World Report two years ago. The Internet has liberated discussion of sexuality, moving it from seedy porn parlors and X-rated video shops onto many thousands of Web sites, mailing lists and chat rooms, where individual people, for the first time in American history, can talk openly about sex and its many attendant issues and complications. This is one genie that's never going back into the bottle.

Pornography seems to prosper in almost direct proportion to our obsessive efforts to control it. The echoes of Kendrick's Victorians are everywhere. Measures are constantly being taken, gates continuously being set up, more and more guards set at them.

In the Information Age, this is an idea whose time has passed, even if many of the people running our country and its media don't know it. VCRs, the Net and the Web have all worked to render useless efforts to create information bubbles that sanitize the weak-minded and wanton among us from the sometimes vivid, even graphic techno-driven imagery of our time.

Children have access to once unimaginably diverse sources of information — cellphones, faxes, beepers, VCRs, home entertainment systems, hundreds of cable channels, the Net and the Web.

Since controlling this flow if information is no longer possible, it would seem inevitable that we have no choice but to teach the young how to live with all this information and use it safely and wisely.

But in the age of the v-chip and CyberSitter, we aren't even close to that realization. Our journalistic, educational and political institutions are mired in 18th Century notions of morality even as the millennium approaches.

Although many American kids have had access to the most sophisticated information and entertainment technology in the history of the world for much of their lives, they are widely presumed to be too stupid and foolish to learn how to use it. And much too fragile to withstand exposure to penises and satyrs.

Maybe our inexhaustible supply of moral watchdogs and political rulers are still afraid their accomplishments will be washed away. Or maybe they just don't want to give up any power over the one group in America that still doesn't have any.

Children are, in fact, the last social entity in America without political representation and codified rights. Women, blacks, gays, Native Americans, Hispanics, the mentally and terminally ill, victims of police brutality, sexual harassment, discrimination, the elderly — one disenfranchised group of Americans after another has organized in recent years, and sued, protested and lobbied for equal opportunity and the same rights and privileges as other Americans receive.

Sometimes grudgingly, important public institutions such as journalism, the law and government have come to support the notion that these groups are entitled to the benefits of American citizenry: free speech and equal protection under the law.

This new sensibility does not apply to the young.

When it comes to suppressing children's rights or curtailing their freedom, sex is the all-purpose rubric, the killer app of the censor. Even though thousands of children are killed by guns each year, and none are killed by new media, it would seem to be the other way around. In our culture, sex is perceived as much more menacing than bullets.

All this filth out there, all this wicked and enticing new technology we don't even really know how to work: How can we control it? What will happen if our children see it?

Most Americans have embraced without question the idea that exposure to all sexual imagery at any time in any form will do irreparable harm to their children, and that even so drastic a step as institutionalized and indiscriminate censorship is appropriate to keep it away from them.

This is especially curious, given how crucial this technology is becoming. In the Digital Age, technology provides access to research, news, entertainment, community, the shared love of the young for popular culture, and as important, the technical skills necessary for education and employment.

In recent years, an unholy coalition of nervous Boomer parents, politicians looking for cheap and safe issues to exploit, politically correct liberals and right-wing religious extremists have lobbied to deprive children of their right to access these new information tools.

These efforts are not known to have saved the life of a single child, or made one more moral, but they have produced an acceptance of and appetite for censorship and advanced the idea that the best way to keep children safe is to ban, block and rate. Thus we have a growing arsenal of censorship strategies and technologies — v-chips, rating systems, filtering software. These technologies have promulgated the idea that the best way to deal with unpleasant, violent, sexually explicit or other controversial material is to try to pretend that we can make it go away.

In a democracy, it's hard to imagine a worse lesson for children.

Peacefire has struggled — sometimes nearly alone — to warn kids and adults about one of the most broad-based and unthinking assaults on freedom in our time.

"The Internet is not dangerous to children," says Peacefire's founder, Bennett Haselton. "We also don't think kids have less-valid opinions because they're younger." Haselton's views are typical of the young. As frequent users of the Internet, they — unlike journalists or members of Congress — know the Internet is safe, and that even young children can master its simple rules of common sense and safety.

Haselton created Peacefire.org when Brock Meeks and Declan McCullagh published Keys to the Kingdom, a report about the wanton censorship of blocking software, in 1996 in CyberWire Dispatch, an e-mail newsletter.

The authors later discovered that CyberWire Dispatch was initially blocked by Cyber-Patrol. (There are numerous reports of blocking programs banning critical publications and articles. I've received more than a score of messages in the last year or so from teenagers — some of them as old as 18 — reporting that a number of articles I've written about blocking software and children's rights have been screened by filtering programs installed by their parents against their wishes on their computers.)

Even if the raging debate over pornography and children could have come right out of the ruins of Pompeii, the context in which we seek to control the information lives of the young is profoundly different than it was then. The young users of new information technologies are unlike any previous generation when it comes to accessing information.

They are resilient, media-savvy and sophisticated. They do know much more than we do about how this new technology works. Most have grown up in interactive, highly diverse cultures where they routinely used complex computers, entertainment systems, games and software programs.

With dozens of cable channels and video players in their living rooms, these kids are exposed to a wide range of content, both print and electronic, entertainment and news, made-for-TV dramas and recycled movies. They are veterans of explicit programming, often exposed to sexual or violent imagery that would have been shocking in previous years.

Journalists love to sound the alarm about the dangers of kids confronting pornography, but what image could be more graphic or disturbing to children than the freeway chases and shootouts routinely broadcast on news channels all over the country?

In Los Angeles last year, an emotionally disturbed truck driver being chased by the police blew his brains out on live TV all over the country. No blocking software or v-chip could have prevented that. Nor can they keep kids from trading videos, encrypting e-mail or getting to use unfiltered TVs and computers in the homes of neighbors, friends and relatives.

Despite the amazing hypocrisy and thoughtlessness it underscored, there is no evidence, for example, that children were harmed in any way by the unfiltered dump online of graphic sexual material involving a young intern and the president of the United States by the United States Congress.

Like the children of Pompeii, America's presumably wanton and weak-minded kids seemed to survive. "What are they telling us?" asked one teen-ager on an ICQ chat mailing list: "It's okay if Hyde does it, but not if we do it?"

For all the alarms about violence and vulgarity in TV and movies, crime among the young has been dropping for years, and has plunged to its lowest levels since the Depression, according to The New York Times and the Justice Department, even while test scores rise and participation in outdoor sports soars.

There is considerable evidence that the values and information habits of the young are changing, but precious little that any are being literally harmed by graphic media imagery. Each year a handful of children — mostly older teen-agers drawn into obsessive relationships (far more are harmed off-line) — are endangered by life on the Internet, despite the countless tens of millions, perhaps even billions, of interactions online every year involving the young.

Kids are more likely to have a 747 fall on their heads than be harmed on the Internet. Author Don Tapscott reported in Growing Up Digital that children were 300,000 times more likely to be abused by a family member than by someone they encounter on the Internet.

Our notions of children and morality have become almost completely inverted by the political and journalistic obsession with sex. Children desperately need access to new information technologies if they are going to be able to thrive culturally and compete educationally and economically.

Increasingly, access to the Internet is a seminal factor in the lives and prospects of the young, from meeting friends and sharing interests to researching school papers and getting other than menial jobs.

For them, popular culture is an ideology and universal language. Children who meet their obligations — who use media equipment safely, who do well in school and who meet their parents' expectations of them in other ways — have a right to explore new media technologies fully and freely. Responsible parents ought to encourage them to do so.

This is not a favor granted them for their occasional amusement, but the right of any human being and any generation to determine his, her and its own culture. The moral position is to make certain that all children get the tools.

The implications of this new technology for any democracy are obvious. Why shouldn't liberal parents block out the names of conservative politicians? Why wouldn't pro-choice parents screen out pro-life Web sites and messages, or vice-versa? Or religious parents ban Darwin's theory of evolution because it conflicts with the Bible's?

Do we really want to reward, expand and perfect this creepy screening of ideas and images? A democracy depends on the free flow of ideas, and on the efforts by differing political ideologies to reason with one another. Isn't that the message kids ought to be learning? Blocking software is the antithesis of that process, especially for older children.

Smaller children, especially those of preschool and elementary school age, ought not to be left unsupervised with new media technologies any more than they should be expected to cross a busy street by themselves.

But there is no safety, educational or other moral reason to punish and censor law-abiding older children. They are entitled to the same protection from arbitrary authority that the rest of us receive. Blocking software doesn't enhance their morality. Rather it prevents them from learning how to use new media in a moral and rational way. As long as they meet their obligations and refrain from harming themselves or others, children have the right to explore their own culture in their own way.

Peacefire's decision to publish instructions on how to disable this mindless, demeaning and profoundly anti-democratic technology suggests that kids might finally be getting some help in this eternal conflict, since most adults in a position to protect them have turned their backs and let them down.

Congress has done little all year but obsess about Monica Lewinsky, but Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last week there was no way the House of Representatives was ever going into recess while kids could see all this "gross" material on the Internet.

For anybody who uses the Internet regularly, blocking programs were, from the first, understood to be a joke (much like v-chips, which require parents who can't even figure out VCRs to program their chips to sanitize up to 800,000 hours of TV each week).

And people buying these programs have no idea what they block — journalists have been too busy looking for Internet perversion to tell them. Some of the best reporting on these censorship companies has come from Haselton, a 19-year-old mathematics student at a southern university, who started Peacefire as a source of information about what blocking software really blocks.

For example, says Haselton, when Time magazine ran a piece online criticizing Cybersitter, the magazine was blocked. Web sites featuring movies, TV shows, feminist sites, newspaper online stories (about sex, violence, women's issues) reproductive health and other educational sites are also commonly blocked, as are many sites about books and magazine articles. Also blocked are the Quaker Home Pages and the Essex County, N.J., Web site because it has the letters "sex" in its title.

The purchaser never knows what he or his kids aren't receiving, a blind, especially thoughtless kind of idea control. Traditionally, censors go after specific ideas they perceive to be dangerous. Blocking software censors with the broadest possible brush, simply eliminating vast ranges of subject matter from children's computer screens.

Were software manufacturers to market programs that blocked The New York Times or The Washington Post from computers because some critics found them too liberal, whole forests would be felled in outrage.

But kids are a free-fire zone — perhaps the last one — when it comes to stereotyping, patronizing and controlling.

On its site, Peacefire.org published instructions for disabling Cybersitter, Cyber Patrol, SurfWatch, Net Nanny, I-Gear, BESS, WebSense and SmartFilter. Haselton was not only willing to publish this controversial information, he has also told everybody where they can find him, providing his e-mail and telephone number.

As many hackers have long known, and as Peacefire's instructions make clear, it's relatively simple to disable most blocking programs. Usually it takes only four or five steps.

Haselton, who says Peacefire now has 6,500 members, has no doubts that it's legal to publish instructions for disabling blocking software, although it's possible, he says, that Peacefire will be threatened with lawsuits.

But the makers of censorware are unlikely to go after Peacefire.org and alert so many of the nation's young to the instructions there.

From the first, Haselton has shamed his older, entrenched and more powerful colleagues in media.

The young have experienced enormous freedom on their captivating new media, and it ought not be surprising that they may fight to keep it. What's sad is that so few people and institutions are fighting alongside them. Perhaps it's appropriate that the battle to give children rights in the Digital Age was started by a gutsy 16-year-old.

In either case, Peacefire reminds us that freedom of thought, access to information and diverse points of view, and the use of extraordinary new technologies like the Internet are not privileges sometimes granted by patronizing authority, but a right for all Americans, including young ones. These are the people who helped build the Internet, who were instrumental in its expansion, and who will work, play and communicate on it into the next century.

The sad legacy of Peacefire's fight is that it highlights the ironic reality that freedom is something we ought to teach children, not prevent them from learning.

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