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Update! Federal judges declare censorship law unconstitutional!

Bill Gates’ response to the June 12 court decision:

"This is a great victory for anyone who cares about freedom of expression or the future of the Internet. Freedom of speech on the Internet deserves the same protection as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly."
"We support thoughtful efforts to ensure that children and other users are not exposed to objectionable material, but Microsoft believes that technology can provide a much more effective safeguard without restricting the free flow of ideas and opinions on the Internet."

Searching for middle ground in online censorship

By Bill Gates

Around the world, the Internet is inspiring many emotions-excitement, hope, and more than a little outrage.

Controversy is arising over the ease with which objectionable material can be accessed electronically. Smut, libel and stolen intellectual property are commonplace.

Equally controversial are the steps some governments are taking to limit access to certains kinds of information on the Internet.

Objections may be loudest in the U.S., where denizens of the Internet have grown accustomed of late to seeing blue ribbons adorning many web pages. These ribbons are a plea for the right to free speech in cyberspace.

It's a right the U.S. Congress abridged to an unfortunate extent when it recently passed the sweeping Telecommunications Reform Act, legislation that also took many positive steps, such as opening the telecommunications industry to broad competition and encouraging investment in modern network infrastructure.

The most striking evidence that Congress went overboard was language in a part of the new law called the Communications Decency Act that could make it a felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, to discuss topics such as detailed information about birth control, AIDS prevention and how to get a legal abortion. The Clinton Administration has vowed not to enforce this provision, which is being contested now in federal court in Philadelphia.

Some people think the Internet should be wide open. They believe interactive networks are a world apart, in which copyright, libel, pornography and confidentially laws do not apply. This is a naïve dream which fails to recognize that the Internet is going to be a vital part of mainstream life, not a lawless backwater.

At the other extreme, some people think the Internet should be tightly controlled. They would ruin the Internet in the name of reining it in.

We must find a balance that lets the Internet be both open and sheltered from abuse.

A web page devoted to the blue-ribbon campaign got it right: "The voice of reason knows that free speech doesn't equate to sexual harassment, abuse of children, or the breeding of hatred or intolerance. We insist that any material that's legal in bookstores, newspapers, or public libraries must be legal online."

The United States isn't the only place clamping down. In every country you'll find sensitivity to some type of material.

China is attempting to restrict political expression broadly, in the name of security and social stability. It requires users of the Internet and electronic mail to register.

In the United Kingdom, state secrets and personal attacks are off limits. Laws are quite strict, and the government is keenly interested in regulating the Internet with respect to these subjects.

In France, which has a proud heritage of press freedom, the Internet attracted recent attention when a banned book on the health history of former French president Francois Mitterrand was republished electronically on the World Wide Web.

As it happens, the electronic republication of "LeGrand Secret" by a third party wasn't banned by a court that ruled that the printed version of the book unlawfully violated Mitterrand's privacy. But if it had been banned, the content easily could have been placed on a web server outside of France and beyond the jurisdiction of French law.

This is a real problem for governments. Germany, for example, wants to keep neo-Nazi propaganda from its citizens even though the information is posted on a server in Canada -- where it is perfectly legal.

Governments have long tried to keep unwanted information outside of national borders. Until very recently, Japan considered almost any picture or video that displayed full frontal nudity to be taboo. Dozens of housewives equipped with sandpaper were employed to scratch the objectionable material from pictures in imported magazine such as Playboy.

But attitudes have changed so dramatically that many popular Japanese weekly magazines now include photographs of nude females. Presumably the sandpaper trade is a dying profession.

In the emerging world of interactive networks, companies that distribute packets of electronic information cannot be asked to filter the content of what they carry, any more than a telephone company can be asked to take responsibility for everything that is spoken on a telephone system.

So how can authorities, including parents in any country, effectively filter access to information on the Internet?

The best solution I know of is for authorized organizations to review, categorize and rate the content of web pages, so that software can filter out that which is deemed inappropriate.

Ratings are not a new idea. Movies are already rated in many countries, although to varying standards (Canada alone has seven standards systems, with most provinces having their own). In the United States, where Congress has mandated that new televisions soon be equipped with a so-called "V-chip" to allow parents to block unsuitable shows, the commercial networks are moving toward a ratings system.

Ratings are rapidly coming to the Internet. CompuServe's new WOW service allows parents to limit their children to approved Internet sites, and Microsoft is among companies building support for ratings into forthcoming web-browsing software. Parents will be able to configure the software to display information only from sites that have acceptable ratings.

Different rating systems are likely to answer key questions differently, giving parents - and governments - a choice of approaches.

For example, one question is whether advertisements should be rated so they can be blocked. Televised baseball is suitable for small children, but the accompanying commercials for violent movies may not be. Similarly, the editorial content of an Internet site may be kid-friendly even though the advertising it displays isn't.

No rating scheme is perfect. Some objectionable material will get through. But a rating system will work most of the time, and is the best approach I can imagine that doesn't unduly interfere with the great benefits of the Internet.

We should resist measures that go too far. If authorities aren't careful, they'll eliminate much that's good about the interactive medium while trying to root out "bad" content.

© 1996 New York Times Syndicate

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