Laws, regulations, police, education, propaganda-these are among the means societies have traditionally employed to promote and defend the values they deem crucial. Yet these efforts are now challenged by the vast possibilities for misbehavior that arise in today’s networks of electronic communications. People end up seeing pictures, reading words, and indulging in activities that sometimes depart from prevailing community standards. The growing response to these mischievous practices is to implant prohibitions within the electronic hardware and software itself.
One example is the V-chip, the device that television manufacturers must now build into every set sold in the United States. The V-chip will enable set owners to block programs with excessive violence or sex. Proponents of the V-chip, including President Clinton, hope it will allow parents to control the kinds of scenes their children see on television.
While giving families power of this kind is a positive development, the V-chip addresses only certain kinds of concerns. For example, many parents I know worry not only about the killing, brutality, and prurient sexuality that abounds on the tube but also the barrage of advertisements that push hollow consumerism as life’s central goal. The same technology that spawned the V-chip could also enable a C-chip-a device giving parents the choice of deleting the commercials that bombard kids for 10 minutes out of every half hour. Why is no one promoting such an innovation? (Don’t write me. I know the answer.)
Another domain in which the implanting of certain norms is becoming commonplace is the Internet. The Communications Decency Act, now before the Supreme Court for a ruling on its constitutionality, makes it illegal to send indecent material over the Internet if children may see it. An alternative approach, one that many parents find appealing, involves the use of filtering software. A mini-industry has formed to sell products with names like Net Nanny, Safe Surf, and CyberPatrol. Parents can set these filters to block a computer user’s access to Web sites that contain pictures of undraped bodies and the like.
It turns out, however, that the power of deeply embedded censorship can do more than weed out erotica. Recently it was revealed that one of the more popular smut blockers, Cybersitter, also makes it impossible for computers to access the home page of the National Organization for Women. Cybersitter was developed by SolidOak Software in close cooperation with Focus on the Family-a right-wing organization that has waged censorship campaigns seeking to remove books it finds objectionable from libraries and public schools. Thus, Cybersitter is actually an extension of Focus on Family’s antifeminist, antigay, anti-abortion rights agenda.
The utility and seeming neutrality of the package has convinced companies that bundle software to include it in their packages. Do these companies and their customers know the political agenda that they are buying into? SolidOak doesn’t conceal its connection to Focus on Family, but it doesn’t advertise it either.
Other filters have also overstepped their advertised purpose. Animal rights and environmental groups complain that CyberPatrol, made by Microsystems Software, blocks their sites because the news and pictures they present are deemed “gross depictions.” CyberPatrol also denies access to the League for Programming Freedom (an organization that opposes software patents) and to some 250 newsgroups, including the distinctly non-pornographic offerings of alt.feminism and soc.support.fat-acceptance.
In addition to imposing a hidden political agenda, Cybersitter also encourages parents to spy on their children. As SolidOak’s press release proclaims, Cybersitter can keep a “secret log” of Internet sites that a user visits, “making it easier for the parent to monitor their children’s on-line habits.” Other software filters offer similar recordkeeping features.
Products of this kind remind one of the totalitarian states earlier this century that tried to establish order by getting family members to spy on each other. Alas, the same practices could well greet parents when they go off to work. Employers can now deploy programs such as Web Track and Sequel Net Access Manager to monitor their workers’ Internet activities and to block access to sites that might detract from productivity.
Both the V-chip and Internet filters reflect today’s tendency to respond to legitimate worries with technical fixes. But citizens of cyberspace must learn to identify, criticize and, when necessary, resist the deeply embedded codes in these “protective” devices. Software purchasers should loudly denounce products that try to smuggle in repressive social agendas or limit free speech. Advocacy groups that find themselves blocked by cyberfilters must similarly seize this issue as part of the causes they advance. We must not allow the new technology to become a covert carrier of highly dubious regimes of virtue.