LM Comment
  6:18 pm GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar
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 Calcutt.

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 Marxism.
Join a discussion on this commentary



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk