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Technology legalized

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 18, 2003
(Issue 2129, The Finer Things in Life)

It's not only the conservative big business types in the entertainment industry trying to muzzle new technology on the Internet. A recent Supreme Court ruling that Congress can mandate anti-porn filters for public libraries accepting federal aid showed that the left side of the political spectrum is just as capable of fighting against new technology.

The ACLU, American Library Association and other stalwarts of liberalism had sued to prevent Congress from enforcing its threat to cut off funding for any library that didn't install anti-porn filters on its public Internet terminals. Their argument was twofold: first, that trying to stop adults from viewing pornography violated their First Amendment free-speech rights and, second, that because the filters are imperfect and block some non-porn sites (say a site on breast cancer research), they violate the free-speech rights of library patrons.

It was the second argument that revealed the anti-technology paranoia that infects liberals every bit as much as conservatives. If the Right is worried about online file sharing and copyright violation, the Left is worried about the specter of George Orwell's Big Brother.

In the case of porn filters, the Court ruled that imperfect technology is not necessarily illegal technology.

Which is only common sense – as long as imperfect human beings design technology, we'll never have perfect machines or software.

Just another tool

The chief complaint against the anti-porn filters seems to be that they are designed by conservatives and betray a conservative political bias – supposedly blocking access to pro-abortion sites as much as pornography.

The answer to that, of course, is to say shut up and design your own better filter. Nobody has given conservatives a monopoly on software design.

In the end, the Court came down on the side of parents, who want to be able to send their kids to the local library without worrying about their either finding porn themselves or sitting next to some pervert in a trench coat.

Congress responded to that grass-roots concern by passing a series of laws to try to protect kids online, just like we protect kids in real life by regulating the sale and display of sexually explicit materials.

The first two attempts by Congress to do this were overly broad, and struck down by the Courts – rightly so, I think.

But the filters on library terminals?

If the ACLU and its allies are going to oppose common-sense steps like that, then they're going to have to accept that the mainstream is going to view them with some hostility – legitimately so.

As a rule, libraries don't stock Hustler or Playboy; why should library terminals be used to download and view similar materials?

The censorship bogeyman

Every time the ACLU doesn't get its way, though, it invariably raises the cry of censorship.

And so it is in this case.

After losing, the ACLU complained that censorship was the new law of the land.

But censorship is when the government punishes you for expressing your views, or prohibits you from learning of someone else's.

Given the plethora of online porn, and the abundance of X-rated book and video outlets in every town in America, it's hard to see that anyone's right to oggle naked cheerleaders is at any serious risk.

And I'm not some prude; I've sold erotica short fiction to Libido magazine. But when online, it was behind an opt-in verification door. Further, if folks can't read it at the library, I'm not too burned over it. Read it at home, or go to a private Internet café and rent a terminal.

As to the argument that this discriminates against the poor who can't afford to buy their constitutionally protected porn?

I've got a constitutional right to travel freely among the several states; if I can't afford a bus ticket and the government won't buy me one, does that mean my right to free movement is being violated?

There's a reason most Americans don't take our legal system seriously anymore.