Why Censoring Cyberspace
is Dangerous & Futile

By Howard Rheingold

Don't be fooled when some politician uses "pornography and pedophiles on the Internet" as an excuse to cripple the most valuable technology America has going for it.

Don't be fooled when some politician uses "pornography and pedophiles on the Internet" as an excuse to cripple the most valuable technology America has going for it. Heavy-handed attempts to impose restrictions on the unruly but incredibly creative anarchy of the Net could kill the spirit of cooperative knowledge-sharing that makes the Net valuable to millions.

It would be a mistake to let the censors create an infobahn police force. We might be trading precious liberties for illusory protection.

Yes, we have to think about ways of protecting our children and our society from the easy availability of every kind of abhorrent information imaginable. But the "censor the Net" approach is not just morally misguided. It's becoming technically and politically impossible. As Net pioneer John Gilmore is often quoted: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." If we were to agree to clamp down, does the US have the troops to send to Finland or Kazakhstan, to prevent people from putting pornography on their local tributary of the Internet? And when we throw up the legal roadblocks necessary to stop teenagers from downloading grainy versions of the same photos found in magazines under their beds, how many people in cancer support groups are going to suffer?

The Internet was designed to withstand nuclear attack. The RAND Corporation designed the network to be a decentralized command-and-control-and-communications system, one that would be less vulnerable to missiles than a system commanded by a centralized headquarters.

This decentralization of control means that the delivery system for salacious materials is the same worldwide network that delivers economic opportunity, educational resources, civic forums, and health advice. This technological shock to our moral codes means that in the future, we are going to have to teach our children well. The only protection that has a chance of working is to give our sons and daughters moral grounding and some common sense.

I got an Internet account for my daughter when she was eight, but I didn't turn her loose until I filled her in on some facts of online life. "Just because someone sends you e-mail, you don't have to answer unless you know them," I instructed her. "And if anybody says something to you that makes you feel funny about answering, then don't answer until you speak to me."

Citizens should have the the right to restrict the information-flow into our homes. You should be able to exclude from your home any subject matter that you don't want our children to see. But sooner or later, our children will be exposed to everything we have shielded them from, and then all they will have left to deal with these shocking sights and sounds is the moral fiber we helped them cultivate.

Teach your children to have no fear of rejecting images or communications that repel or frighten them. Teach them to have a strong sense of their own personal boundaries, and of their right to defend those boundaries. Teach them that people aren't always who they present themselves to be and that predators exist. Teach them to keep personal information private. Teach them to trust you enough to confide in you if something doesn't seem right.

Yes, pedophiles and pornographers use computer networks. They also use telephones and the mail, but nobody would argue that we need to censor these forms of communication. The most relevant question now is: how do we teach our children to live in an uncensorable world?

Copyright 1994, Howard Rheingold

Last modified August 22, 1995.
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