Technology

The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

« Previous Post | Technology Home | Next Post »

Net neutrality: A barrier to a smut-free Internet?

April 16, 2010 |  3:15 pm

Router It's one thing to argue that government regulations will hamstring the Internet, as many opponents of Net neutrality regulations argue. But a new coalition of economic and social conservatives also argues that the FCC's proposed rules would prevent the Net from being hamstrung in the right way.

In a letter sent Thursday to members of Congress, leaders of 30 groups called on lawmakers to oppose the Net neutrality proposal, saying "the great success of the Internet has been made possible because the government has stayed out."

They went on, however, to warn that the proposed rules "call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated." In particular, the letter contends, Net neutrality "prohibits" ISPs from "preventing peddlers of child pornography from having unblocked access to every home Internet connection." Parents and families must "continue to have access to the tools necessary to keep unwanted content out of the home."

Gee, where to start? As the FCC has made abundantly clear over the six years its leaders have been talking about Net neutrality, the concept doesn't apply to illegal content. Obscenity and child pornography are just that -- illegal.

But that's not the only false or misleading aspect of the letter....

Even today, with no neutrality rules in force, broadband providers can't effectively prevent obscene content from reaching their customers. Short of caching and examining every Web page, download and stream that passes through their pipes, the most ISPs can do is deny their customers access to sites known to distribute illegal content. (They exert more control over their e-mail services, but as spammers have shown, there is no such thing as a perfect filter.)

What many of the letter's signatories apparently want is what the Supreme Court has said they cannot have. At the behest of social conservatives in both parties, Congress has tried twice to stop the flow of indecent material through the Net, first with the Communications Decency Act in 1996, then with the Child Online Protection Act in 1998. The Supreme Court rejected the indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act in 1997; the latter was quickly put on hold by the federal courts and ultimately buried by the Supreme Court in 2004. In both cases, the court found that the laws violated the First Amendment because they were too broad and because less restrictive alternatives were available.

In particular, the justices in 2004 cited the existence of filtering programs that parents could install on computers at home. Let's see, self-help solutions that emphasize personal responsibility versus liberty-snuffing controls exercised by centralized third parties -- seems like a pretty clear choice for advocates of small government. But social conservatives around the globe don't like "light touch" regulation when it comes to indecency online.

The most extreme example may be in Australia, where the government has announced plans to require ISPs to block access to sites that it deems objectionable. Do the Eagle Forum, Family Research Council Action, the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Family Association (all signatories to Thursday's letter) want that kind of nanny-state monitoring for the U.S.? If so, how does that square with the call for preserving freedom and innovation on the Net, exactly?

Don't get me wrong, I don't want kids getting sucked into the dark side of the Internet either. But I'm convinced that watchful parents are a far more effective shield than the blunt instruments wielded by ISPs or government. And blacklists of the sort being prepared by the Australian government seem antithetical to the spirit of the Internet, regardless of the intentions behind them.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

Photo credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Comments 

Advertisement










Video