Dollars, sense and censorship

Would you pay extra for an uncensored Net? Should you?

The Bush Administration's anti-recession tactics have given rise to an unexpected beneficiary: the Internet porn industry. According to the Adult Internet Market Research Company, adult sites have been engorged with sales during the normally limp US summer months. One popular clothing optional site surveyed its members last month; 32 per cent said the tax rebates influenced their decision to sign up or renew their subscriptions -- thus giving new meaning to the term "stimulus package." (Ba dump-bump.) At least our tax dollars are finally going to something worthwhile.

Meanwhile, more than 320 Netizens responded to a BuzzDash poll on whether a porn-free net is desirable, let alone possible. The results so far: 24 per cent say Yes, 58 per cent say No, and 17 per cent say "define pornography, please."

And yet our Uncle marches on, determined to protect us from our own darker natures. Take the recent proposed US FCC rulemaking that would establish a free wireless Internet sans "harmful content." Here's the money part of the proposal [PDF]:

The licensee of the 2155-2188 MH band (AWS-3 licensee) must provide as part of its free broadband service a network-based mechanism.... that filters or blocks images and text that constitute obscenity or pornography and, in context, as measured by contemporary community standards and existing law, any images or text that otherwise would be harmful to teens and adolescents. For purposes of this rule, teens and adolescents are children 5 through 17 years of age;

Interpreting this ruling literally, that means it's OK to publish material harmful to preschoolers. Imagine the possibilities.

Besides the always fun problems of defining "obscenity," "pornography," and "community standards" for a community of 1 billion Netizens, the rules add the far more ambiguous question of defining what images or text that "otherwise would be harmful" to our nation's teens. Which, depending on your point of view, could include practically anything. (Personally, I'd add "Hannah Montana" to the list.)

Here's the other part of the rulemaking hardly anyone's addressed. If the content filters don't work, it's ok to block certain services like -- wait for it -- Bit Torrent.

Should any commercially-available network filters installed not be capable of reviewing certain types of communications, such as peer-to-peer file sharing, the licensee may use other means, such as limiting access to those types of communications as part of the AWS-3 free broadband service, to ensure that inappropriate content as defined in paragraph (a)(1) not be accessible as part of the service.

Anybody else see the hand of the entertainment industry reaching under the covers at the FCC and fiddling about? David Kravets at Wired's Threat Level blog sees this new wireless Net as a sandbox for all kinds of nefarious government activities.

We at Threat Level suspect this broad censorship plan has little to do with government morals and government opposition to underwriting the delivery of pornography into America's living rooms. It's more likely the censorship rules are crafted to minimize opposition from ISPs, which would certainly go bust if there were a free, uncensored Internet.... More important, however, to comport with the censorship rules, the spectrum would become a playground for real-world testing of filtering, throttling, eavesdropping and other protocols, a platform whose users, most likely the poor, are its guinea pigs.

Imagine two Internets. The free one available to schools, libraries, censors and spooks; and the other one, for which ISPs will charge whatever the market will bear for you naughty little monkeys.

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