Filter mojo

The institutions struggling to rid the Internet of porn and spam may have found the one weapon that works: The Net itself.


Andrew Leonard
June 25, 2003 2:16AM (UTC)

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a law requiring libraries that receive federal funds to install filtering software blocking access to pornographic material. On the same day, the Electronic Frontier Foundation released a detailed study conclusively demonstrating that currently available filters just don't work.

There, in a nutshell, is the dilemma posed by the current state of Internet evolution. Society is increasingly mobilizing its forces of control -- the courts, federal and state governments -- to restrict objectionable online behavior. Legislators are grandstanding, subpoenas are flying back and forth, courts are establishing precedents. And yet the noise and abuse and "illegal" activity continue, seemingly unabated. Meanwhile, for every technical solution that's concocted, another technical workaround is devised.

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The tussle over library filters is just one skirmish in a multifront war. Other outbreaks of hostilities include the battles against spam and file sharing. There are clear differences between these cases -- for example, it is much easier for courts to define and identify copyright violations than spam or Web content that is "harmful to minors." But together, they represent a fundamental challenge to the status quo -- a challenge made possible by the Internet itself.

From a historical perspective, the battle for control is fascinating, if only because every conflict represents an aspect of the Net that initially fueled its growth and excited its adherents. At first, e-mail was seen as a great boon, a handy way to maintain and nurture relationships between friends and family and co-workers. Digital technology, combined with the Web, made it easy to copy and distribute all kinds of information -- something that programmers, political organizers, religious evangelists and entrepreneurs alike all found incredibly useful.

But today, logging on is the equivalent of standing over Pandora's box just as it is opened and having all the evils cooped up inside splattered all over one's face like so many noxious cream pies. Whether one's perspective is as an e-mail user sick of penis enlargement spam, or a record company executive outraged at having one's proprietary content zipped hither and yon, or a principal worried sick that students will be watching porn on school computers, the fact is that the very things that made the Internet great are resulting in a counterreaction.

There's no telling how this wrestling match is going to play out. Maybe it's all growing pains -- maybe, 10 years from now, music lovers will predominantly use paid services, spam-mongers will have been thrown into jail or financially broken by large fines, and blocking software will have improved to the point where it actually works. Maybe the Internet will be tamed.

Or conversely, maybe the Internet will break itself. Spam and spam filters have degraded the usefulness of e-mail to the point where one has to pick up the phone to check if someone has actually received an e-mail. (In fact, on this column's way to its editor, it got tagged as spam by our spam filters -- the reference to "penis enlargement" seems to have pushed it over the line.) File sharing, screams the entertainment industry, threatens the future existence of Hollywood and the music business. Filtering software may end up blocking so much of the Net that information gatherers will be forced to return to their encyclopedias.

Perhaps neither extreme will occur -- most likely we will muddle through to some kind of sustainable equilibrium. But perhaps the most alarming potential development is what at the outset might have seemed the least likely: the possibility that the Internet itself will end up being the method of control used to police its own users. It's the ultimate online paradox: The Net's own explosive, disruptive, empowering nature will lead to its being used for the establishment and enforcement of limits on what people can do with it.

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That may seem counterintuitive, as we watch the farmyard-animal porn spam flow through our in box, as we rip our CDs to our hard drives and shower our friends with our favorite files, as we use Google to find information on the most obscure objects of our desire.

But look closer -- the result of file trading is that now agents of the recording industry have the legal right to force your ISP to give up your name if they suspect you of allowing other people to grab the latest Eminem track from your computer. Meanwhile, the blight of spam is forcing Congress to define exactly what people may or may not do with their e-mail accounts, and widespread access to porn is bringing the federal government into the micromanagement of libraries.

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It used to be, you logged on and you felt empowered by your connectivity with an infinitely expanding universe of information and possibility. Now, you log on, and you feel as if you are being monitored, blocked, constrained and corralled -- with each click, one step closer to a subpoena or a lawsuit.

The EFF study is persuasive in demonstrating that the current state of blocking software is ludicrously ineffective. More pages are blocked incorrectly than correctly, pages that should be blocked often aren't, the application of vague "harmful to minor" restrictions leads to access restrictions on political and historical material, and so on.

But the study sidesteps a critical question -- which is whether filtering technology will ever improve to the point that it's reasonably useful. My guess is that it will -- just as search engines stumbled along until the advent of Google, which works really well, and spam filters are steadily improving. It will never be perfect, but it will be good enough to block a high enough percentage of what its installers want blocked that it will be perceived as useful. For example, my installation of SpamAssassin doesn't block all spam, but it blocks enough.

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If we posit that filters will improve, then we are looking at a truly disturbing Orwellian scenario: the capacity of organizations -- not just libraries, but any organization, whether it be governmental, corporate, private or public -- to fine-tune levels of access to information with an ease and flexibility simply not possible in the old world of hard copy. Because the Web has made getting everything so easy, it has created a market, and now, a legislative and judicial mandate, for controlling access. As the Net becomes the primary conduit for all information, which it undoubtedly will, it will be easier and easier for would-be bowdlerizers to put curbs on what is available and isn't. Want to eliminate access to the Ku Klux Klan from the Net? Just click a few check boxes. Achieving the same level of censorship in a library full of real books is a whole different order of business.

Meanwhile, on the spam front, Congress is now deliberating the thorny question of determining what is spam and what isn't. Consensus is likely to be reached that Joe Blow e-mailing 5 million unsolicited copies of a Viagra advertisement is spam. But what about 50 copies? What about a politician decrying abortion or the war on terrorism? Is it conceivably constitutional for political speech to be spam? Is it spam when General Motors tells everyone who has bought a Cadillac about a new trade-in deal?

The problem is that, ultimately, what people want is for annoying e-mail to be stopped. But maybe annoyance is the price of liberty. How we can keep from getting annoyed while still respecting the First Amendment is a real puzzler. Better, maybe, to depend on not-quite-perfect technological spam filters that we install ourselves than to let Congress outlaw new forms of expression. Otherwise we may approach a point where, if I send 30 copies of an e-mail to my friends inviting them to a party, I trip an alarm set by a legally mandated spam monitor, and before I can call my lawyer, the spam cops have me in electronic leg irons.

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As for file sharing, the threat posed to the control of proprietary information by the Internet has resulted in an array of laws and punitive responses that is truly awesome to behold. The combination of copyright defenses (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) with court-approved permission to extract personal information from ISPs is a pretty big stick with which to smack Internet users. And the pressure continues to grow. On Monday, a bill introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and co-sponsored by Howard Berman, D-Calif., would, if passed, direct the FBI and Department of Justice to join the fight against copyright violators.

Forget about cracking down on terrorism; the dread specter of copyright abuse is leading to the outright merger of Hollywood and Washington. Don't you dare take a peek at even one song on a peer-to-peer network, even if all you want to know is whether the song might be worth buying: You run the risk of being watched, recorded and put on a list.

This represents a reduction in freedom, not an advance. I wouldn't think twice of copying a few pages of a library book at my local copy shop, or making a mix CD out of my own legally bought CDs to give to a friend. But if I step on the Internet to do my copying, I should be aware that I'm entering dangerous territory: Those same amazing technologies that give me so much access to information also give others access to me.

That's the greatest paradox inherent in the current societal frenzy over how to shut the digital Pandora's box. The Internet, so full of liberating promise, is turning into an instrument of control. Its threat to the status quo is so great that content owners and governments are demanding unprecedentedly intrusive powers to limit what we do, watch and read, and using the Internet itself to enforce those powers. Maybe in the end, the Internet will be the goose that laid the golden egg -- and then throttled itself.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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