Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 101 in 1998.
The Child Online Protection Act?
The U.S. government has taken another stab at trying to regulate material on the internet and once again everyone is quaking in their boots about it...
On October 21st of this year President Clinton signed a bill that includes the "Child Online Protection Act", passed by the 105th Congress on October 7th. It's almost as if they don't think anyone is paying attention. The bill was signed only one year after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the similar Communications Decency Act unconstitutional. The COPA tries to be narrower in its terminology by using the term harmful in replacement of the CDA's indecent. By using such broad a term in 1998 you are leaving a wide array of peoples open to prosecution. And the prosecution for the COPA is a stiff one… a $50000 fine, no more than 6 months in jail, or both. The $50000 fine is for one offense. Every day the offending material is left on the Internet counts as another offense, and another $50000.
The "affirmative defense" to being prosecuted is restricted to the web site "requiring the use of a credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number," "by accepting a digital certificate that verifies age," or "by any other reasonable measures that are feasible under available technology." I assume the latter means of defense refers to something like a film type rating system or a server-based version of an Internet filtering system, which does not yet exist. The fact that it doesn't is one of the major factors the COPA is focusing on, forcing the development of "various technological tools and methods for protecting minors from material that is harmful to minors." This would include - "filtering or blocking software or services" "labeling or rating systems" "age verification systems" "the establishment of a domain name for posting of any material that is harmful to minors" and "any other existing or proposed technologies and other methods for reducing access by minors to such material." There is a current self-rating system for web sites (RSACi) but a very small percentage of sites currently use it.
The further development of filtering systems such as Cyber Sitter or Net Nanny seems to be one of the main goals of the COPA. These programs filter web access utilizing any Internet content containing "harmful" keywords, content, and imagery as well as some domain addresses and newsgroups that the software companies predetermine as "bad." But these filters are inherently flawed, almost to the point of being comical. Some of the programs will not block access to a site, but censor out offensive words. A search on Barnesandnoble.com for Susie Bright's "The Best American Erotica, 1997" turned up the title "The Best American ,1997" centimeters away from a full-color image of the cover whose most legible word was "Erotica." A search for the book "Sex in the City" turned up one called "In the City." Completely different book that time, not just a deleted word.
There have been reported instances of the following sites being blocked by a filtering system:
- a web site containing the name Mars Explorer (due to the Ex in the middle of the words)
- a site on Superbowl XXX
- the International Gay & Lesbian Rights Commission
- the National Organization for Women (Cyber Sitter blocked both of the last two, not for their political viewpoints but because they contained information of gays and lesbians which some parents might not want their children to see.)
- the "Banned Books Page" at Carnegie Mellon
- the MIT Student Association for the Freedom of Expression
- the AIDS Authority web site
- Mother Jones magazine
- The alt.atheism and soc.feminism newsgroups
- Nerve.com which has a disclaimer right on its start page stating "This is not porn"
Peacefire.org, one of the principle and most outspoken groups battling against the filtering companies, has guidelines on its web site on how to uninstall the major filtering programs. They have also published on-line a decrypted list of word strings, domain names, and keywords that Cyber Sitter will block out. Immediately following this, Cyber Sitter blocked the Peacefire site on the grounds that it allowed its competition access to too much information about the program. They tried to get Media3 Tech, Peacefire's service provider, to drop Peacefire and when they refused, Cyber Sitter threatened to block everything on the ISP. On this decrypted list I found some interesting phrases and domains that someone out there finds "harmful" to minors. Like the word string [mom, mother, father, dad, parents, folks, momanddad, momordad] [,at,come] [around,home]. Pretty risqué… [bomb, gun, explosiv, hacker, hacking]- I have come across an example relating to these words that illustrates how flawed these programs are. In a recent article in Yahoo!'s Internet Life magazine titled "Block That Site!" they reported that their own web site (www.yil.com) was filtered by the Air Force Space Commands network at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. The reason they were banned from the network was reportedly because there was a link on one of the archived pages of yil.com to the Exploratorium web site. The Exploratorium is a San Francisco based science museum that had a page on its site that contained directions for kids to make "bubble bombs" out of baking soda and vinegar in Ziploc bags. I downloaded and installed Cyber Sitter to give it a test run. One of the particularly annoying functions of Cyber Sitter is that it will redirect you from one of their flagged "bad" sites to one of their deemed "good" sites. Instead of the site I was looking for (Babette - see later on in this story) I was redirected to the Exploratorium web site. So instead of downloading photos for use with this article I built a bubble bomb and sent it to the Air Force in Colorado.
• • • • •
I came across an adult web site that did not require an age verification system to enter it, but did have the following warning on its start page-
"This is a site designed and intended SOLELY for ADULTS -- people who are at least 18 years old - who are interested in and wish to have access to visual images, verbal description and audio sounds of a sexually oriented erotic nature. The materials which are available within this site may include graphic visual depictions and descriptions of nudity and sexual activity and should NOT be accessed by anyone who is younger than 18 years old or who does not wish to be exposed to such materials. By entering you are making the following statements: "Under penalty of perjury, I swear/affirm that as of this moment, I am an adult, at least 18 years of age." "I promise that I will not permit any person(s) under 18 years of age to have access to any of the materials contained within this site." "I understand that when I gain access to this site, I will be exposed to visual images, verbal descriptions and audio sounds of a sexually oriented, frankly erotic nature, which may include graphic visual depictions and descriptions of nudity and sexual activity. I am voluntarily choosing to do so, because I want to view, read and/or hear the various materials which are available, for my own personal enjoyment, information and/or education. My choice is a manifestation of my interest in sexual matters, which is both healthy and normal and, which, in my experience, is generally shared by average adults in my community. I am familiar with the standards in my community regarding the acceptance of such sexually oriented materials, and the materials I expect to encounter are within those standards. In my judgment, the average adult in my community accepts the consumption of such materials by willing adults in circumstances such as this which offer reasonable insulation from the materials for minors and unwilling adults, and will not find such materials to appeal to a prurient interest or to be patently offensive."
This disclaimer's statement precludes the sentiments of the COPA. I especially like the part about the interest in sexual matters being "healthy and normal." It takes the ideas of the COPA to an extreme. The COPA limits the definition of material that is harmful to minors as - "the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest," "depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast" and "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors." This description of "harmful" shades the landscape a hazy grey…
There has been a gathering of tribes to challenge the COPA, and along with such organizations as Peacefire there is included in the opposition a growing number of booksellers and publishers. Under the COPA, anyone posting an excerpt from a novel on the internet, or a piece of artwork taken from a recent publication, or even offering information about health and sexual education, if deemed "harmful", is breaking the law. Unless OBGYN.net starts checking credit card numbers before offering information about obstetrics and gynecology, they may be in trouble.
Another web site I came across in my research titled Babette, My Sexy Girlfriend (see accompanying photos below), did not have a longwinded disclaimer at the beginning, simply - "Warning… sexy pictures ahead! SOME NUDITY" That was an understatement… There was no credit card check, no adult verification, not even a question asking whether I was over 18. What followed were a series of thumbnails of Babette, as the accompanying text described, a luscious and sensuous female. The site was set up in a format used by many adult sites. You get a page of "thumbnailed" photos. When you click on a thumbnail, you got a larger version of the photo, in this case, one of Babette exposing herself in various poses (again, see accompanying photos below).
I tried the downloaded trial version of Cyber Sitter to see if I could program it to keep me from returning to this site. It did. After installing the software I tried to revisit Babette. I was redirected by Cyber Sitter to the aforementioned Exploratorium. On a second attempt I was sent to a site called "Homework Central" and a third time to "TIME (magazine) For Kids" which is interesting since the TIME web site for adults was once blocked after running a piece on filtering software.
I was also curious as to whether Cyber Sitter, or one of the other monitoring programs software, would keep me off of Amazon.com, which like Babette features an array of thumbnails containing sexual imagery, also for free. The book covers below and on the following pages are titles listed for sale by Amazon. On most booksellers' web sites along with the description of the title and the price, more often than not, you get the cover. Barnes&noble.com also often displays a title's cover. But the main difference between them and Amazon is that Amazon allows you a full-page version of a cover in a similar vein to Babette. The bookseller's site also lists at least three recommended titles for every book you bring up. This allows for easy navigation from one provocative cover to the next. And again, based on these images, Amazon could be in a heap of trouble if they don't make you prove you're an adult before you browse. Perhaps they can set up a separate section of the web site for books, videos and compact disks that are "harmful" to minors, like the porn room at the local video store, complete with virtual strings of beads covering the doorway. The filtering software operated with neither rhyme nor reason on the bookseller's web sites. A search for Playboy or Penthouse brought me to the "Family PC on the Web" site, but I was still able to bring up the cover photos of titles by Richard Kern and Eric Kroll (see photos). I have previously illustrated the effects it had on book titles.
More book covers from Amazon.com's web site...
Should B&N, Amazon, ArtNet, the Internet Content Coalition, the American Booksellers Association, etc. etc. band together against the "Child Online Protection Act" as it stands now? Do the definitions and terms set in the COPA really differ enough from those in the Communications Decency Act, which was deemed unconstitutional due to the fact, among others, that it failed to provide any definition of "indecent." The CDA banned the transfer of any information "that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs." The COPA only expand this description to include any web site that as previously mentioned "depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast", or one which "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors." Says Mark Tiarra, president of one of the top adult oriented companies on the Internet, "The Justice Department doesn't even know how it's going to enforce (the COPA). If I were the Supreme Court, I'd be insulted that they passed it." Should we be concerned about more vague terminology for decision making, which when applied to any other version of expression (radio, television, printed matter) would immediately be deemed unconstitutional? Should we fear our information being regulated by a computer program that displays the Electronic Frontier Foundation's blue ribbon for Internet free speech on its logo, yet blocks access to the EFF's own web site? Should people band together to stop this process before it starts? If they don't, unless we are all presented with electronic Adult Identification cards upon our 18th birthday, those of us without credit cards may have to remain a cyber-minor forever.