NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Internet Filtering Promotes "Big Brother"

August 14, 2000

Many people have called for government censorship of Internet content and access. In 1999, nearly 80 bills were proposed in Congress to regulate the Internet, including requiring mandatory filtering programs in places like schools and public libraries.

Internet filtering programs work by blocking access to certain sites -- determined by the manufacturer -- and by blocking sites containing certain words. However, these programs provide a false sense of security because they cannot block all potentially harmful sites. And they are likely to block harmless sites with useful information. For example,

  • Access to the websites of the Army Corps of Engineers Research Labs, Brigham Young University and the Japanese Institute of Technology have been blocked because the software described them as "Full Nude Sex Acts."
  • Blocked words and letter patterns include "xxx," which blocks Superbowl XXX sites; "breast" which blocks sites on breast cancer; and the consecutive letters s-e-x, which blocks sites containing the words "sexton," "sextet" and "Mars exploration."
  • Filtering also blocks access to sites along ideological lines such as sites opposing homosexuality, feminism and non-traditional lifestyles on "intolerance" grounds, but allows access to opposite viewpoints on these issues.

Courts across the U.S., including the Supreme Court, have held that mandatory filtering is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment. But less intrusive methods -- limiting school usage to school-related work, conducting seminars on appropriate usage prior to allowing access, placing privacy screens around terminals -- do not violate constitutional principles.

Source: Marvin Johnson (American Civil Liberties Union), "Internet Filtering is Incompatible With a Democratic Society," Privacy Paper No. 15, October 1999, Free Congress Foundation, 717 Second Street N.E, Washington, D.C. 20002.


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