Grey matter for Internet scissors

I recently wrote about a proposal called the CP80 Internet Channel Initiative that is intended to “clean up” the ’Net. As I discussed, this proposal is, at best, a complete waste of time. At worst, I see CP80 as a dangerous political tool.

There’s been a lot of feedback and among this was an argument over whether CP80 constitutes censorship. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, defines a censor as a “person authorized to examine books, films or other material and to remove or suppress what is considered morally, politically or otherwise objectionable.” The definition of censorship from the same source is the “act, process or practice of censoring.”

So censorship is the correct term, whether the material is removed or suppressed. The goal of the CP80 initiative is to reduce availability, which is suppression, which is censorship.

The problem with censorship and the inadequacy of CP80 lies in legal categories. For example, when you try to define pornography, the extremes are fairly easy to determine. But what about Goya’s “The Naked Maja” or Nabokov’s Lolita? These are examples of the Grey Area Problem, trying to define which classification something belongs to when its attributes are not quantifiable.

Because of this, the argument over whether something is pornographic ends up being based on opinions driven by personal, religious and cultural prejudices, so fairness, objectivity and rational thinking tend to get jettisoned.

But in the middle of the CP80 issue is the Internet. Again, do you realize how often the Internet — and for that matter information technology — is demonized?

In the case of CP80 it is easy to see the back story: The goal is simply and transparently political. The various players want to get something done about pornography and the Internet, and CP80 is just a stalking horse to frame the debate and garner political capital.

But if you admit that it is impossible to define to the satisfaction of everyone concerned what is and is not pornographic, then we need a strategy that avoids the Grey Area Problem and the law.

Perhaps Web content could be classified according to the ethics and morals of each interest group. So we might have one group that thinks porn is okay, another that thinks soft porn is okay, another that doesn’t like soft porn but doesn’t mind South Park, while yet another thinks that Mary Poppins is a bit racy.

Now if we could get Web sites to start using a scheme like the Platform for Internet Content Selection, then those who are really careful will block any site without a PICS label.

Sites with PICS labels can be cross-checked by users against public databases run by each of the groups. And sites with a rating that a group doesn’t agree with can be identified in that group’s database as being in violation, so on cross-check they would fail. The scheme would be a reputation system of sorts.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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