A new US law will censor what is broadcast on TV and the Internet
T he favourite theme of the US presidential campaign may be bashing "big government", but where the Internet and even broadcast TV is concerned, Washington appears suddenly to be suffering from an acute bout of nannyitis.

The symptoms are in the sweeping Telecommunications Liberalisation Bill passed by Congress last month. Designed first to foster competition between the industry's different sectors - telephone, cable and the broadcasters - it meanders into the dangerous territory of government censorship. The more benign of these provisions, perhaps, is the one aimed at helping parents control what children get to watch on television. This is to be achieved with the so-called V-Chip, which, once installed in American TV sets, should allow concerned mums and dads to screen out programmes designated as having some violent or sexual content. The broadcast networks have agreed to co-operate with the scheme, but doubts over its workability abound.

Then comes the part of the Bill called the Communications Decency Act. This bans the transmission over the Internet of so-called "indecent" or "patently offensive" material and threatens offenders with fines of up to $200,000 and five years in prison. This also smacks of unenforceability. Beyond that, the Act has sparked an eruption of protest from both providers and users on the Internet who consider it a gross and quite unnecessary violation of their constitutional right to free speech.

The anger surfaced almost as soon as President Clinton took his pen and signed the entire Bill, including the Decency Act, into law. Sites on the World Wide Web were set against black backgrounds and framed in graphics depicting bright blue ribbons for several days in a mass show of defiance at the new law. Other protestors programmed their computers to send non-stop e-mails directly to the White House registering their disgust. Like balls from a tennis training machine, the messages continue to bombard Clinton's aides.

Now the rebellion has gone as far as the courts. By the end of February, a wide-ranging and rather formidable coalition of companies and Internet user associations had filed a lawsuit in the federal courts in Philadelphia seeking to have the Act repealed on the grounds that it violates the constitution. Parties to the lawsuit include Microsoft, Apple Computer, the commercial online providers such as CompuServe and Prodigy, and groups like the American Booksellers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Already, implementation of the Act has been temporarily blocked by a federal court because of concerns about its constitutionality.

Defenders of the Act such as Senator James Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska who helped sponsor it, say they are unmoved. They point to the kind of material that lurks on the Internet that most parents would indeed prefer their children not to see. These include chat forums that explicitly discuss sex and different sexual preferences, as well as photographs on the Web of naked people - not to mention naked people engaged in carnal high jinks.

"Most of the people who have heard about dirty pictures on the Internet are thinking about what we used to call 'cheesecake photos'," Exon remarked. "They don't have any appreciation of how grotesque some of these pictures are. As a father and a grandfather, I feel quite safe in saying that some measure of protection is needed." He accuses corporations like Microsoft of joining the lawsuit against the Act out of purely commercial concern.

Opponents of the Act say it is inappropriate and unfairly discriminatory against the cyber-community. They argue that the same rights of freedom of expression are due to them as are already extended to print media in the US. And they reject the government's argument that they should be subject to the same rules of decency imposed on TV and radio broadcasters, countering that the Internet is a two-way medium where users can just as easily create Web sites as surf through them.

"We believe this lawsuit will determine the nature of First Amendment rights in the 21st century," says Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Technology and Democracy in Washington. "We want to educate the courts and get the hearing that we never got in Congress on the nature of the Internet."

To demonstrate what damage the Act could cause, another protest group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has created a special Web page containing exhibits which could all fall foul of the "indecent" criteria. These include the Venus de Milo, extracts from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and lyrics from the rock group Smashing Pumpkins. "Congress has prepared to turn the Internet from one of the greatest resources of cultural, social and scientific information into the online equivalent of the children's reading room," EFF says. The group also highlighted a provision of the Act which forbids providers from carrying any information on abortion, such as guidance from birth control groups or listings of abortion clinics.

Among those scorning the Act as simply unworkable is Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a columnist for Wired magazine. Wondering how the government could conceivably employ enough inspectors to watch over the Internet, he concluded: "You can't control cyberspace. It's not technically do-able."

CompuServe collided with the issue of cyber-censorship head-on earlier this year when prosecutors in Germany threatened to take action against the company because of profane material broadcast in some 200 of its online newsgroups. It responded by withdrawing the groups from all of its 4.5 million subscribers. Last month, it found its own solution by reinstating most of the groups but offering free to its suscribers software capable of screening out portions of its service that might cause offence. Other companies have also begun developing software to screen out offensive material.

This may the most sensible response and it is akin to the government's V-Chip project. The V-Chip at least leaves the decision on what should and should not be blocked to individual households. For their part, the broadcasters, who have agreed to launch the system in 1997, will need to rate their programming according to child-viewing suitability. Assuming the chip is installed in their TV, parents will then be able to black out programmes with high sex and violence ratings with a click of a remote control.

Even this approach is not without pitfalls, however. The task of developing a rating system and then applying it to all the programmes broadcast daily would be daunting. Do you apply the same criteria to serious TV dramas as you would to Mighty Morphin' Ninja Turtles, for example? Devising a rating system for all that is available on the Internet would be still more difficult.

And there is one more problem. The children that such systems would seek to protect are generally more computer-savvy than their parents. Finding where daddy has hidden that V-Chip remote or disabling that screening software may not be beyond many artful five-year-olds.