The Web has grown up. A year ago, I would never have thought that I would want to provide this warning on an issue of this magazine:
Warning: This magazine contains links to information that is unsuitable for persons under 21 years of age.I never thought that major commercial distributors of adult magazines would get onto the Web, nor would I have thought the United States Congress would find this online material somehow far more sinister than what is at the corner drugstore, or schoolyard, or home. Or more sinister than hunger and illiteracy.
Lisa Schmeiser's article on the Decency amendment traces some of the struggles our culture and nation have faced dealing with free speech in many media. Today, the Web offers a form of communication that can cross boundaries of culture and nation, that can be accessed or broadcast to the world by anyone with the right equipment.
Chris MacDonald's cover story on the ethics of Web engineering raises an even more subtle point: decency goes beyond flashes of nudity or erotic content, but extends to organizing metaphors we have for technology. Decency isn't just a ratings scale from G to NC-17, but includes considerations for the morality of the ways we construct our online world.
Does the US Congress realize that they cannot control the boundaries and content of cyberspace? US laws over Internet-based content can become quickly irrelevant by moving servers offshore where the US has no jurisdiction. Have parents so few clues about their children that they can't discuss with them all potential threats to their well-being--both online and offline? Is our technology so lame that we can't create the tools that parents and others can use to exercise self-control over what they encounter online?
Even the highest level of restrictions on online content couldn't stop potential threats to children or anyone else. The complex communication on the Internet and Web makes possible nearly any form of communication. And nearly all of this communication might offend or disturb someone.
How can people cope? I think the answer lies in personal responsibility--for one's own choices about online activity, and for one's own children in all their activities. With technological solutions (such as SurfWatch) parents and teachers can have some assurance about the environment their children encounter online. Information providers, by voluntarily registering their URLs with blocking services (and blocking services working aggressively to discover their target content) can help maintain a free and open Internet with individuals choosing their level of participation.
Moreover, people and organizations are free to make their own blocking software and services, tailored to their own or their members's interests and world-view: NewtWatch for blocking messages from conservative House Speakers; HollyWatch for blocking cheap, hollywood-hype Webs (e.g., The Spot); or LeftofPatWatch, for blocking any content leaning left of Pat Robertson (making for a small, safe Web-view). The possiblities are endless. The point is that there are solutions for people to deal with what they encounter online. There's no perfect control possible, but individuals and groups, by exercising their right not to observe any particular online activity, can preserve that same right for others who may want to observe.
The Internet and Web extend around the globe in a way no nation can control. It is perhaps disturbing to the US Congress (and perhaps even the mythical "family values" political factions) to know that they could never control the Internet's content nor stop it from existing. Is it a desire to control the world that drives the US Congress? Or is it a search for decency?
Of course, as always, thanks to all who contributed to this issue, worked on its production and editing, and put up with me this month. Special thanks to: Lee Honeycutt, Chris Lapham, Amelia DeLoach, Kevin Hunt, Lynne Cooke, Lisa Schmeiser, and Jason Teague.
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