INTERNET FREE EXPRESSION ALLIANCE
EPIC Statement on Proposal to "Limit Students'
Access to Indecent Internet Material"
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) joins with other members of the Internet Free Expression Alliance in opposing Senator John McCain's proposal to require schools to block "indecent" Internet content or lose federal Internet subsidies. EPIC believes the proposal is ill-advised and would threaten the full exercise of First Amendment rights in the nation's public schools. Such an approach would ignore the clear dictate of the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Reno v. ACLU, holding that the Internet is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection. It would also constitute a Congressional endorsement of Internet content "filtering" techniques that have been shown to be clumsy, ineffective and destructive of the Internet's educational potential.
When the Supreme Court struck down the "indecency" provisions of the Communications Decency Act, it held that the government could not justify a blanket restriction on "indecency" -- a term that encompasses a great deal of socially valuable speech -- in the name of protecting minors. As the Court found, "The general, undefined terms 'indecent' and 'patently offensive' cover large amounts of nonpornographic material with serious educational or other value." The Court concluded that, "As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship." Senator McCain's proposal would likewise run afoul of that constitutional tradition.
EPIC recently released a report finding that so-called "family-friendly" search engines typically block access to 99 percent of the material on the Internet that would be appropriate for young people. The report, "Faulty Filters," was based on a side-by-side comparison of an unfiltered Internet search engine (AltaVista) with a filtered search engine. According to its creators, the Family Search retrieval service merely screens out material that is "inappropriate and/or objectionable for average user families."
We tested both search engines using such search phrases as the "American Red Cross," the "National Aquarium," and "Thomas Edison." The study found that the filtered search engine typically blocked access to 99 percent of the documents containing those phrases when compared with results returned by AltaVista. Significantly, the filtered search engine blocked access to web sites created by elementary schools for elementary school children.
The advocates of Internet filtering techniques should reconsider their position. A great amount of valuable educational material is being blocked by these programs. Filtering requirements are inconsistent with the goal of providing our children a rich educational experience and, when mandated by government, violative of the First Amendment.
The "Faulty Filters" report can be found on the Internet at:
David L. Sobel
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