Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Epic Bait-and-Switch: Filtering Software and the Communications Decency Act

I started this entry last month, when there was that whole fuss about gun raffles and NYC Mayor Bloomberg's anti-straw purchase stings.

It was originally a supposition about how the gun lobby typically says that 'we don't need new laws, we just need to enforce the ones we have' -- then, when there's a bit of enforcement, like Bloomberg's pursuit of straw purchases during out-of-state gun sales, they flip out.

I never posted it, since I came to the conclusion that I didn't have enough information on which to post an informed opinion. Shocking, I know.

However, it got me thinking about the whole topic of famous bait-and-switches. And one in particular, the likes of which we haven't seen since the debate around the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

The CDA: Remember That Bit of Drama?

For those youngsters (or oldsters who've forgotten), the CDA attempted to regulate indecency and obscenity on the Internet -- for the sake of the children, of course.

There was a lot of talk about chilling affects. And slogans: "Take Back the Net" started with the CDA, not the DMCA, kids.

There were also snazzy blue ribbon icons. It was a big to-do at the time.

The legal arguments centered on how obscenity was already covered under current law; how "indecent" and "patently offensive" were undefined and unconstitutionally vague; and that the CDA, in the name of protecting children from indecent content, had the effect of restricting free speech for adults.

However, a big part of the argument hinged around the fact that there were better and less-infringing ways to shield kids from offensive content on the Internet. Especially the PICS content rating system, used in conjunction with... filtering software.

Yes, there was a time when filtering software was seen as a tool for the good guys.

The CDA's indecency provisions were struck down (June, 1997 -- 10 years last week or so), and the CDA's greatest legacy to the modern Internet will probably be the Safe Harbor provisions given in section 230.

As for the filtering software? It's kind of like something out of Le Carre's Circus -- its usefulness as a lever against the CDA spent, it was thrown to the wolves. Shortly afterwards, someone flipped a bit, and people started saying:

"By the way, we're against filtering software, too."

Only now they called it "censorware." And they never looked back.

Hell, if you look at the Censorware Project's about page: "The Censorware Project was formed by a group of writers and internet activists in late 1997."

I'm not saying it was a conspiracy. But it was a pretty masterful piece of timing.

(As an aside, I can only hope that Bennett "Peacefire" Haselton winces a little every time he thinks about their old slogan, "It's not a crime to be smarter than your parents." I mean, there's provocative, then there's sounding like an arrogant prick. Geez.)

Anyway, I guess the CDA takes up a disproportionate section of my mind, if only because it occurred during my formative Internet years.


bennetthaselton said...

You spelled my name wrong.

But you have a good memory. I never liked that slogan much either, which is why it now says "You'll understand when you're younger."

Joelogon said...

Sorry, I'll fix the spelling.

As for slogans, there's always: "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now." -- Joe