HELPING my 10-year-old cousin with her fifth-grade final project was not the breeze I had anticipated it to be. With an ambitious assignment: to write about "The American Government," our first recourse was online research. My cousin insisted on typing, eager to show off her Internet proficiency to the big kid sitting next to her. As her pudgy fingers hunted and pecked for a Web site, I watched as the phrase "whitehouse.com" appeared on the screen. Then I watched as the image of a woman in a suit jacket and not much else followed, also beckoning from the screen. I quickly covered my cousin's face, muffling her questioning about the meaning of "foxy chicks" beneath my hands.
Who knew that the innocent replacement of .com for .gov would generate an NC-17 Web site? Certainly not my little cousin, who still pesters me about what "foxy chicks" means today. With new laws being passed in Virginia to ban pornography and other inappropriate content on the Web, shouts of First Amendment violations predictably blare like a foghorn. Numerous Virginia groups, like PSINet (an Internet development company in Herndon), the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and Lambda Rising Bookstores, the nation's largest specialty retailer of gay and lesbian materials, tout the law as an attempt to reduce cyberspace to a realm suitable only for juveniles. Civil rights advocates who are currently filing a federal suit against the Commonwealth claim that it limits the Internet as an open forum for communication and information.
To some extent, these protests are justified. A complete ban on public information undoubtedly is a violation of free speech. But one has to wonder what really is being protected in the defense of propagation of material harmful to children - the freedom of press on the Internet, or the industry that profits from it?
The argument against censorship always has been "If the government limits you in one way, who's to say it will not limit you in others?" As another generation raised on a healthy diet of rallies, marches and sit-ins, however, we are all well aware that Americans are as patient with injustice as a cranky baby is about its bottle. Limiting explicit material on the Internet will not lead to a domino effect of limitations. Groups like People for the American Way, which currently is protesting the Virginia law, and other almost militantly active freedom-of-speech groups will continue to exist. And they will continue to yelp about how the government stepped on the nation's democratic foot to protect us.
Instead of being the revolutionary turning point it is feared as, Internet censorship will be another practical exception to the First Amendment rule. No, you can't yell fire in a crowded movie theater, even if there is free speech. No, you can't print libel even if there is free press. The above are dangerous, and they exceed the dangers of violating the First Amendment. For the same reason - no, you can't sell or display pornography online in a manner that is accessible to children.
Completely prohibiting access to explicit sites would be a blatant denial of rights. But prohibiting pornography's dissemination to minors is just another reasonable exception to the First Amendment, and not the Black Death of liberty, as civil rights activists diagnose it. In this case, those who defend free speech do it more for their own sake rather than the sake of the common good. They do not consider how much more harm they are bringing than good.
To propel a more objective censoring of Internet information, new Web site rating systems are being developed by Web statistics companies like the Bertlesman Group. These formulas will create a more quantitative method of labeling sites. Instead of assigning subjective titles, such as "harmful" or "offensive," they plan to assign numerical values to sites based on a general survey of the public.
A noteworthy argument against the Virginia ban on explicit material is that, for all practical purposes, it is useless, considering how ineffective a single state law would be in curbing the entire World Wide Web. While this is true, this is also not the purpose of the law. It will not be the single finger that is wagged at explicit Web material, but a part of the larger hand that is doing the smacking. It is the Internet version of Brown vs. the Board of Education, in that it has the potential to start a chain of events protecting innocent eyes from inappropriate material.
And that's nice to know, because when it comes down to it, who really wants to have to explain what "foxy chicks" means anyway?
(Diya Gullapalli is a first-year College student.)