9 February 1996
The Net-nanny State
It may never be implemented, but the Exon amendment provides the basis for
a Net-nanny state.Folded into the US Telecommunications Act 1996, the Communications
Decency Act 1995 aka the Exon amendment was formally passed by Congress
last week. Although likely to be dropped at a First Amendment hearing, the
Exon amendment lays the foundations for a Net-nanny state, writes Andrew
Exon has catalysed a new consensus around the need to regulate and control
the Internet by means of appropriate legislation; and he has confirmed the
widespread perception of the Internet as a disaster waiting to happen. The
assumptions behind the Exon amendment - that pornography and online harassment
are serious hazards, and that people need their betters to advise and protect
them - are now common currency on the Internet.
The Exon effect is comparable to that of the Alton amendment to the British
Criminal Justice Act. Although David Alton's amendment did not reach the
statute books, it set the tone for the video censorship debate following
the killing of Jamie Bulger, and prompted the Tory government, with New
Labour support, to enact the strictest video censorship in Europe.
Old-style anti-censorship campaigners are failing to recognise the new forms
of control. The 'powerless state' is said to be incapable of controlling
the global Internet with its ability to 're-route' around obstacles such
as censorship. Many activists mistake the demise of 'gatekeeping' techniques
for the end of censorship altogether.
But 'gatekeeping' methods are being replaced with pre-emptive control mechanisms
involving the V-chip or Net Nanny software which screens out material considered
unsuitable for children. The manufacturers emphasise that these devices
put control of children's viewing in the hands of their parents. Many anti-censorship
campaigners agree, noting that 'parental choice' is highly desirable compared
to blanket bans imposed by anonymous officials. But do parents really get
to choose what is suitable for their children? Nowadays the label 'problem
parent' is applied to anyone who fails to follow professional advice on
how to bring up their kids. Children are required to submit to parental
discipline, and there is nothing wrong with that. But parents in turn must
submit to the authority of those who say they know what's best for us. In
this new version of 'nanny knows best', the state plays the role of 'nanny'
over adults as well as children. Failure to follow nanny's instructions
on correct use of the Internet may incur the wrath of the Net-nanny state.
This is censorship, but not as we know it. If the 'de-centred' Internet
is not susceptible to the totalitarian nightmare of George Orwell's 1984,
nevertheless the new methods of controlling the information superhighway
are every byte as menacing as Big Brother.
Andrew Calcutt writes further on this subject in the March issue of Living
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