updated: 03/05/2002

If you can't defend what is unpalatable to you personally, then you don't actually believe in free speech.  You only believe in the free speech of those who agree with you.

Slaman Rushdie, noted author


Internet Censorship

History has shown that when it comes to censorship there is almost nothing that someone, somewhere won't object to—and try to ban.

The United States, along with some other countries, is having some success in attempting to censor certain ideas and images on the Internet.

In a few countries Internet use can result in a decade or two in prison—or even death.  

The futility of effective Internet censorship efforts—no matter how well meaning—is demonstrated in the following examples.

In a well-documented effort to censor Internet materials a major computer on-line service attempted to filter out all sites with objectionable words. The word "breast" became part of the list. Unfortunately, this immediately impacted women's health discussion groups (breast cancer; breast feeding), the exchange of favorite recipes (which include chicken breasts) and even fishing groups (red-breasted bream, a type of sunfish).

Even the name "Pamela" (as in Pamela Anderson, presumably) tripped filtering software—which, of course, kept us from reading about any woman in history who was named "Pamela."

Since the numbers "21" "18" are used on web pages that warn that users have to be 18 or 21 to enter the website, some filtering software eliminated sites that used these numbers. The fact that these numbers appear in many other contexts, including news stories on the websites of newspapers, was either not considered or was deemed of secondary importance.

In a further effort to screen out pornographic images a company developed filtering software that could supposedly recognize pornographic images. Unfortunately, the software also filtered out such things as photos of landscapes and various works of art.

Currently, various types of government-mandated filtering software now eliminates sources of information for students using library computers for research papers. Students who can afford home computers end up with an advantage, since more resources are available.

Interestingly, attempts at censoring ideas often add to the attraction of the targeted materials, which, in turn, has often given them a greater audience.

Although censorship efforts may impact readily available materials, given the Internet's potential to instantly reroute, encrypt, and repackage information, an astute computer user with a willing Internet friend anywhere in the world can work around most roadblocks. There are even free programs available on the Internet designed to defeat blocking software.  Music sharing programs—especially those with encryption options—are often used to surreptitiously exchange files.  In short, "if there's a will there's a way."

...obscenity laws do not allow children to learn to confront and deal with real-world issues...

 ...these laws end up doing young people more harm than good.

-Marjorie Heins   

According to author Marjorie Heins (Not in Front of the Children: Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth) because obscenity laws do not allow children to learn to confront and deal with real-world issues, they make them vulnerable to these issues in later life.  As a result, she says, these laws end up doing young people more harm than good.

At the same time many people feel that certain words and types of images should be banned—especially for children and young people.  It is assumed that this material is "harmful to minors."

Although little research has been done on the effects of these materials on minors, empirical research with normal adults does not support a negative effect. This issue is addressed in detail here. Opposition is based primarily in political and religious rhetoric, which, in the United States, is based primarily on the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The origins of these beliefs is covered here.

Censorship In School Libraries

Overt moves to censor books take place in about 20 percent of U.S. schools each year—with unreported efforts far exceeding this percent. Things that have been censored include Shakespeare's plays and many books considered "classics." Webster's New World Dictionary has even been banned in some schools because it contains some "objectionable words."  

Because of pressure from Religious Right groups, some schools are now censoring the Harry Potter books because some parents see a relationship between the sorcery of Harry Potter and Satanism. At the same the Harry Potter books have been singularly credited for getting thousands of children interested in reading.

Even though librarians, in general, oppose censorship efforts, many public schools and libraries have bowed to pressure by some politicians and parents to use filtering software to limit Internet access. Some conservative religious schools in the United States filter out all Internet material that conflicts with their views—including material at CyberCollege and the InternetCampus.

Even art museums in the United States have not escaped censorship action. In the words of Los Angeles Times columnist, Christopher Knight, "In the spring of 1990, a lose constellation of Cincinnati bluenoses, religious fanatics, gay-bashers, right-wing politicians up for reelection, and assorted others among the citizenry began to circle around the director of a local art museum...."  They succeeded in not only canceling an exhibit, but also in virtually destroying the director's family and career.  Such is the fear that some people have of words and pictures.

As the Internet starts to include video and film segments, we should remember that these too have been a favorite target of the censors. This started at the earliest possible moment with the censorship of a 60-second experimental film by Thomas Edison called, The Widow Jones (aka: The Kiss), based on a popular stage play of the time. (At that time kissing was viewed as inappropriate for the public to witness.)

Slaman Rushdie, who is quoted at the beginning of this article, had to hide out for years after a religious group, which objected to one of his books, took out a contract on his life. Several of the people who translated the book were stabbed, shot, or killed.

Is Education the Solution?

Possibly the only real solution to all this is to educate people—young people in particular—to critically, and, yes, even morally, evaluate the sea of information that is now instantly available from around the world.

With adequate education and information superior ideas—if they really are superior—shouldn't have to fear inferior ideas. "It is forbidden," "thou shalt not," or even "it's against the law" is no longer enough; we have to be able to clearly, logically, and convincingly justify our opposition.

An opinion on this topic by Frederick "Fog" Horne can be found here.

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