Rating Internet Content

The American Civil Liberties Union article “Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?”[1] illustrates how mandatory rating of Internet content will lead to blocking of information, create barriers between information sharing, and will result in an Internet dominated by big business. I agree with the ACLU’s position that rating Internet content compromises the free speech of individuals.

Libertarianism holds that individuals should be allowed complete freedom of action as long as they do not infringe on the freedom of others.[2] Libertarianism advocates that individuals’ negative right to freedom from interference includes freedom from government interference. When making the choice whether and how to rate Internet content the ACLU takes the moral position, as do Contractarians,[3] that considers whether individual rights may be at stake. The Libertarian position is that mandatory ratings coerce individuals to apply pejorative labels to information they wish to publish. This infringes on individual freedom to be left alone.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law, free speech means “the right to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content and subject only to reasonable limitations.”[4] Although this article refers to the First Amendment to the American Constitution, it is my Canadian perspective that informs my understanding and agreement with the ACLU position. The right to free speech is protected by Section 2 (b) of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Section 2 (b) of The Canadian Charter states that everyone is entitled to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”[5] The freedom to publish information on the Internet is implicit as the Internet is another “media of communication.” Therefore there is nothing here to suggest that information shared on the Internet is not also entitled to the same protection.

A key point of the ACLU’s statement is that ratings lead to blocking and further to censorship. Whether ratings are third party or self-regulated the labels are value-laden and pejorative. Definitions of art and pornography are subjective. And in the case of Kuromiya’s safer sex information[6], sometimes there is educational value in being “crude” and “explicit.”[7] Regardless of whose system is used to create the labels (PICS, RASCi or their successors), once the labels exist, prejudice develops. It is then only a small matter of code to filter negatively rated sites. Default browser settings could easily block unrated material.

The task of self-rating content would mean small companies with minimal resources of staff and time would be challenged to meet mandatory rating requirements. Neither do small companies have the legal resources to adequately shield themselves from the potential liability of publishing mis-rated content. As a result these companies would be silenced. If a search engine will not index an unrated site (though it is necessary to question the ACLU suggestion whether or not a search engine would knowingly refuse to increase the size of their database) then unrated sites would no longer be searchable on the Internet. There is no way that unindexed site could be found through a web search. The only way to visit the site would be a direct path through the URL. If it is not in a search engine database then there is no way to “penetrate the dense smokescreen”[8] suggested by the ACLU. Things in this case are worse than they suggest.

Rating websites will increase barriers to entry, which will block freedom of speech. There are two pieces to this: the first is that currently individuals can find a voice on the Internet with relative ease, through a personal websites, forums, or blogging, among other choices. However as the ACLU states, “People who disseminate quirky and idiosyncratic speech, create individual home pages, or post to controversial news groups, will be among the first Internet users blocked by filters . . . ”[9] The second piece is that individuals are motivated to be productive when they are assured they will enjoy the results of their labour. If a site will be rated negatively resulting in restricted access by users then the motivation to produce is removed. These two reasons (both the likelihood of blocking and the removal of motivation) will alter the nature of the Internet from an information resource to a commercially driven and focused environment. Through these ratings, the types of information deemed unacceptable will grow and only large organizations will be able to afford positive ratings.

Another point to consider is that mandatory rating will create a virtual barricade between the United States and the rest of the world. The proposed system would apply only to American content. Content originating in countries outside the US would be restricted by laws in their own countries. If US browsers are (hypothetically) set with default blocking then unrated content from other countries would not be available to users within the US. This would disallow information to cross into the US. A virtual barrier to information trade is erected and people outside American borders may not even realize that their voices have been blocked.

Opponents to the ACLU, in this case, supporters of content rating, suggest that information that is shared on the Internet requires rating and censorship in order that it should do no harm. Reasons given include protecting minors from graphic text and images. Because of this, sexual content (regardless of its context) would be among the first categories to be rated and restricted. Utilitarian philosophy upholds that the “right course of action is to promote the general good.”[10] If this was the case, then violent news imagery and effectively any content could fall under the heading “may offend”. Freedom of speech applies equally to views that we both support and reject. Without this universal application of the principle of free speech then free speech does not really exist.[11] One cannot choose to permit only the voices of those others that she or he agrees with. This means that rating and restricting web content is in direct conflict with individuals’ right to free speech.

The ACLU’s suggestion that preliminary information be used to alert users to the content of a website[12] is the best way to deal with managing information on the Internet. A user is prepared for the content of a site before proceeding. Second to this would be user based blocking software with full disclosure of sites blocked and the rationale for blocking identified. The software must also be fully customizable by the user. This would allow parents to adjust for their family’s changing needs. This is also an effective way ensure that sites are not blocked because they criticize or disagree with a vendor or express a controversial opinion or because a vendor either holds or has been influenced to hold prejudice against a particular nature of content.

The right to free speech supersedes government right to censor content. According to Pilhong Hwang, “state censorship should be challenged . . .[the] right to free speech, including of course pornographic right, must prevail.”[13] Ultimately, unless users organize into large, loud groups, lobbyists and money will dominate. As the Internet becomes more complicated the general population becomes more confused about the interpretation of freedom of speech and how it applies to the Internet. Laws will be passed based on the needs of large corporations with the financial means to support lobbyists rather than the freedom of speech of individual users.



[1] Ann Beeson et al. “Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?” 17 March 2002. American Civil Liberties Union. http://www.aclu.org/Privacy/Privacy.cfm?ID=9997&c=252. (8 June 2005)

[2] “Libertarianism.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 13 June 2005, 9:25 EDT. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism. (15 Aug 2005)

[3] Richard Spinello. CyberEthics: Morality and Law in Cyberspace, Second Edition. Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003.

[4] “Free speech.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law. 1996. http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=free%20speech. (15 June 2005)

[5] Department of Justice Canada. “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Constitution Act. http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/. (14 June 2005)

[6] Beeson et al. 2002

[7] Beeson et al. 2002

[8] Beeson et al. 2002

[9] Beeson et al. 2002

[10] Spinello 11

[11] See Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Dirs. Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. 1993.

[12] Beeson et al.

[13] Pilhong Hwang. “Liberal Pornographic Rights: Private Right over Public Menace.” International Journal of Applied Philosophy Fall 17(2) 2003: 225-240.

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