Keeping children safe online

The merits of filtering out internet pornography in schools and libraries is an issue which will not die. In the United States, the Children's Internet Protection Act passed in 2000 by Congress has been the subject of several legal challenges. The objection to keeping porn from children revolves around two issues: the accuracy of the filtering mechanism and free speech rights. Few will argue against the need to protect minors online. Cyberspace is a hunting ground for sexual predators. The less savory the website, the less savory the people who run and frequent the website. No sane person would argue that pornography should be available to six-year-olds. So how do we protect children online outside the home? As with any piece of technology, web filters are not perfect. They are software designed by humans using data entered by humans. In the infancy of web filtering software, correcting such problems was difficult. With today's software, the task borders on trivial. Errors in web filtering are of two kinds: false positives and false negatives. False positives are websites that register as pornographic without being pornographic. The usual example is a breast cancer website. False negatives are pornographic sites which slip through the filter unnoticed. The stricter the filtering, the more likely false positives become. The laxer the filtering, the more likely false negatives will get through. Those irritated by the notion of internet filtering often assert that because the software is not perfect, it should not be used. Women might die because they can't find information on breast cancer on the web. This argument is absurd. Taken to its logical conclusion, we would have to ban police officers because crime still happens even though they are on the street. We would have to ban the judicial system because judges and juries sometimes get it wrong. Let's not even talk about what would have to happen with the United States Congress. The point of protection mechanisms is to "raise the bar" for would-be attackers. Most would not bother and those who try have to work so hard that they get caught. Modern web filtering software makes it very easy to "whitelist" or "blacklist" websites. Sites that are incorrectly filtered can be entered into a "whitelist" so they will be let through. Sites that need to be filtered can be "blacklisted." The process varies between the specific pieces of software but it is not difficult. Imperfections can be overcome. The question of free speech is more difficult. Since the US Supreme Court has decided that prurient imagery is a constitutionally protected form of speech, restricting it is difficult. However, most taxpayers feel that schools and libraries are not in the business of producing and distributing pornography. The purpose of schools is to teach children. It is not unconstitutional to not give children access to Playstation 3s in school. The purpose of libraries is make information available to patrons. It is not unconstitutional for them not to perform colonoscopies. Simply put, taxpayers did not found these institutions so perverts can get pornography on the public dime. They surely do not pay for internet access into schools so these perverts can inculcate young people with a pornographic mentality. Regardless of what parents, schools and libraries filter out, pornography will still be available. The mentality being displayed by those who oppose filtering goes beyond "freedom means I can do whatever I want to." What they are saying is "freedom means I can do whatever I want to and you need to pay for it." Convenience is not a constitutionally protected right. It seems that schools and libraries are the only institutions where this "right to look at porn" is controversial. Other government agencies fire workers for looking at pornography while working. In fact, according to human resources people, looking at pornography is the only thing that will get you instantly fired from a job with the US federal government. One could argue that filters are an attempt to legislate morality. However, businesses also ban pornography viewing at work. It is a stretch to suggest that businesses are driven by a sense of morality. The reason most corporations ban pornography isn't prudishness. It is fear of legal liability. With sexual harassment laws, women who work in an environment where they see men looking at pornography have recourse in the court system. Furthermore, when on the company dime, corporations expect employees to be working. A quick Lexis-Nexis search showed about a dozen teachers and administrators running afoul of the law for viewing pornography in school. Most of these cases involve child pornography. The Children's Internet Protection Act, as interpreted by the court, allows an adult user to request that filtering be turned off while they access the internet. The result has been that perverts end up viewing child pornography on the public dime. Web filtering, while not perfect, helps stop accidental viewing of pornography by minors. If children are in danger of falling into the clutches of online sexual predators, not putting in place solutions that are 98 per cent accurate because of the 2 per cent of errors is unthinkable. The idea that such filtering is a threat to free speech is simply a red herring that distracts people from the real issue. Our children's safety is more important than a pervert's access to pornography at the expense of taxpayers. John Bambenek is, among other things, a freelance columnist.He also writes for his own blog, Part-Time Pundit, and contributes to six other popular blogsites such as Blogcritics.


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