This is a fuller version of a paper presented at the 1997 annual conference
of the Canadian Library Association.
Feedback would be most welcome.
Or are they merely the latest technologies for censorship? Do they end up restricting or suppressing non-conforming expression - that is, creative expression perceived by some people to be immoral, harmful, contrary to family values, beyond contemporary community standards, and so forth?
What about children? Do Internet filters, V-chips, and other kinds of content rating and labelling systems help parents protect their kids?
In view of what appears to be a growing political resolve to impose technological controls on television and Internet content, and a trend towards more and more labelling of creative expression in just about every medium, it's timely for librarians to examine these issues.
The purpose of this paper is to assess whether these blocking technologies and rating systems are effective strategies for controlling access to ideas in an age-appropriate manner, or whether they result in viewpoint discrimination. The concluding challenge to all librarians is this: Are there alternative solutions for librarians that will address more effectively parental and political concerns about Internet content, films, and other media?
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My thinking so far is grounded in two bodies of theory and principles that form part of the foundational knowledge of library and information studies. These bodies of thought have profound implications for library policy on access to Internet content, just as they do for library policy that tries to regulate creative expression in any other medium of communication. The implications are described as profound because these bodies of thought have the potential to shed light on the theoretical feasibility of using blocking technologies to control - and suppress - creative expression on the Internet and elsewhere.
These bodies of thought are reader response theory and information retrieval theory. In a nutshell, what these theories reveal is the unsolvable problem of ambiguity: ambiguity in language, ambiguity in text, and ambiguity in retrieval systems. Before I address their properties and implications, some historical background may be useful.
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I suspect that we have all heard the Internet missionaries wax eloquent about the unprecedented and irrepressible freedom of this new communications technology, and about its unstoppable, ubiquitous capacity for democratic liberation throughout the world.
Such optimism has been rudely shattered for me by many recent events, at home and around the world, that reveal how deeply vulnerable and fragile Internet communication is in the face of political and social resolve to prohibit or regulate it. Indeed, single-minded politicians and lobby groups are now at work in many countries - democratic and otherwise - to control the dissemination of speech in virtually every medium. And they are succeeding.
We have learned of Internet service providers who are under attack to remove materials that police authorities and politicians do not like, not only in Canada and the U.S. but in other democratic countries as well. And often there is no due process. No charges are laid under the Criminal Code. There is only police intimidation to remove materials that they don't like. In Edmonton last summer, there was an example of a local Internet provider being pressured by the police to remove certain sites from their system; and they did so without protest (Kerry Powell, Edmonton Journal August 14, 1996).
In China, Internet users must register with the police and must sign a statement that they will not use the Internet to commit a crime or to communicate information that will "harm" the country. Furthermore, web sites are normally not available to individuals at all, and Internet providers must work through gateways controlled by the government.
In Vietnam, Internet service providers are subject to government monitoring and regulations prohibit information, among other things, that might affect national security and social order.
In Singapore, service providers must be registered and regulations allow for the monitoring of political and religious content on the Internet.
And in at least one Middle East nation, there is only one service provider for the whole country.
Closer to home, a Canadian Human Rights Commission tribunal is currently hearing a complaint against the "Zundelsite" based in California that is alleged to belong to Ernst Zundel (Globe and Mail May 27, 1997, P.A8).
The so-called Communications Decency Act in the United States is the most egregious example on the large scale in a democratic country. This Act is part of the Telecommunications Act that was passed by the U.S. Congress last year and is now the subject of a Supreme Court challenge.
This legislation makes it a criminal offence to knowingly send or display material that "in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs" in a manner that could make it available to minors under 18. This could potentially include medical information such as descriptions of childbirth, abortion or sexually related medical conditions, or great works of art containing nudes, or even photographs of statues and sculptures of nudes.
So even though the First Amendment in the U.S. would appear to prevent this kind of legislation, apparently American politicians could see no harm in trying - and score political points with at least a segment of the citizenry and voters.
Similar legislation has been enacted in several states in the U.S. as well, and is similarly being challenged in the courts.
In Canada, we also have the CRTC, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, which has succeeded where government censorship in the U.S. has been much less successful.
The CRTC has single-handedly imposed content and word limitations on broadcast communications across the country, and is even now engineering the adoption of V-chip technology to force the television industry to "voluntarily" produce a system of television program ratings. It is also considering the feasibility of regulating content on the Internet.
At the federal level, we also have tentative feelers by Industry Canada, which is studying who should be held liable for offenses on the Internet, encompassing libel, copyright violations, and control of "criminal" materials such as hate literature and child pornography, and whether existing legislation is adequate or not. (I have not yet seen their report.)
We should also keep in mind the many other legislative controls on freedom of expression in Canada, most notably Canada Customs.
I should mention that in the U.S. there is the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which has regulatory powers that have been used to carve out a daytime ban on the broadcast of sexually explicit speech (the "seven dirty words" of comedian George Carlin's well-known monologue), but is prevented from exercising the kind of broad government control taken for granted in Canada.
Two basic approaches have been developed over the past several centuries to the regulation and control of media expression:
In some media, an age-based rating system is combined with a system of content warnings.
Both approaches invite varying degrees of censorship. In an age-based classification system, greater flexibility and diversity are permitted in the treatment of controversial subject matter, taboos, and other unpleasant topics. At the same time, however, media producers typically aim their products at a certain age level, and may feel obliged to cut and reshape creative content until it conforms to the rating for that level of audience; alternatively, there is the possibility that a higher age rating could be accepted.
In a content-based system, the audience is fixed. It is presumed to be the family, which is to say that the audience is presumed always to include young children. All creative content in the medium must therefore conform to society's views of what children should be exposed to outside the home. There is no room for "adult" treatment of any subject. While both audience and content approaches are highly authoritarian, the content control system has resulted historically in much more overt and prior censorship than the audience system.
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The initial approach to determining motion picture content from the early 1900s until 1968 was not based on age appropriateness, but rather tried to regulate the content of movies so that they would be suitable for all ages. A rigid code of morality was enforced.
The resulting product was geared strictly to uncontroversial family entertainment and avoided many taboos and unpleasant subjects. Reality in life had nothing to do with reality in film.
In the process, it would seem that almost every major motion picture made from the 1920s to the late 1960s was contaminated by the rigid criteria of official morality and values. Artistic integrity was a concept unknown to the film censors, something best left to book authors, painters, and sculptors - though of course these media were not immune to attack either.
Films based on plays and novels often ended up bearing little resemblance to the originals. Plots, characters and their traits, lines, settings - any and all were changed and massaged until they were morally acceptable to the censors - especially the Roman Catholic Church's Legion of Decency formed in 1934, which rated films in three categories: A, morally unobjectionable; B, morally objectionable in part for all; and C, condemned. Controversial books and articles on which films were based were prohibited from being mentioned or credited.
As a result, any genuine artistic progress in American film was stifled for more than half a century by the early approach to the regulation of creative content.
From the start of moving pictures on Broadway in 1894 and even with weekly attendance by 1910 of 26 million people across the United States, audience enthusiasm and demand were no match for the fear and disapproval expressed by those wielding moral and political power.
Chicago was the first casualty in 1907, when the chief of police was given the power to censor theatres. And on Christmas Eve, 1908, the Mayor of New York City closed all theatres, in compliance with a recommendation by the police commissioner, though an injunction forced him to resort to an order that only educational programs could be shown on Sundays. (In response, theatre owners then hired lecturers to stand up during performances and announce "These are railroad tracks," "More railroad tracks," and so on.)
The following year, in 1909, film producers responded to the growing threat of government censorship by creating their own voluntary organization, the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures. The Board was charged with reviewing, cutting, and approving films, and preparing lists of those recommended to parents and educators. They could also ban.
In England, the Cinematograph Act of 1910 gave local authorities the power to make theatres safe from fires, but it was so broadly worded that local authorities interpreted it to ensure that theatres were made safe from indecency too. Two years later, in 1912, in response to the rapid establishment of local censorship boards with varying standards of what could be shown on the screen, film producers created their own voluntary self-regulatory organization, the British Board of Film Censors. The Board developed a simple rating system of "U" for universal exhibition, "A" for not recommended for children, and banned; but a written code was never adopted.
The first U.S. state censorship law was passed in 1911, in Pennsylvania, and by 1921, five other states (Ohio, Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, and New York) and over 100 cities and towns had censorship boards; the first federal censorship bill was introduced in 1914.
In a precedent-setting case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915, the state censorship board of Ohio was upheld on the grounds that free-speech status did not extend to motion pictures; this ruling influenced film censorship in the U.S. for the next 40 years. Instead, the Court ruled, motion pictures were "a business pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit ... mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments ... vivid, useful, and entertaining, no doubt, but ... capable of evil,..." (Miller 26).
Incidentally, one of the first films banned under the influence of this decision was Margaret Sanger's 1917 film Birth Control. The Court did not reverse this view until 1952 in a case involving New York state's ban of The Miracle.
In 1921, the film industry issued a list of 13 points considered unsuitable for the screen, including nudity, prostitution, gambling, drunkenness, and any illicit love affair "which tends to make virtue odious and vice attractive" (Miller 27).
This list was revised and expanded over the next few years, by 1927 consisting of 36 subjects to be avoided or handled with care (Miller 39-40). Some things on the list were banned totally, irrespective of the manner in which they were treated: pointed profanity; illegal traffic in drugs; any inference of sex perversion; white slavery; miscegenation; sex hygiene and venereal disease; scenes of actual childbirth, in fact or in silhouette; ridicule of the clergy; wilful offense to any nation, race or creed (Miller 39-40).
Other things required special care "to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste be emphasized": use of the flag; use of firearms; theft, robbery, safecracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. ("having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron"); brutality and possible gruesomeness; technique of committing murder by whatever method; actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime; sympathy for criminals; attitude toward public characters and institutions; first-night scenes; the institution of marriage; surgical operations; titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or its officers; excessive or lustful kissing (Miller 40-41).
Three years later, in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted. The Code perpetuated a moral framework that reveals profound distrust of ordinary people: Film shall never lower moral standards; shall never permit audiences to develop sympathy for crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin; shall always present "correct standards of life"; and shall never ridicule law, natural or human (Miller 51).
So, while film could never avoid some of these topics, there had to be "compensating moral value": the criminal must be jailed, the adulteress must confess her sin and repent or be condemned by somebody, the cop killer must be executed.
Examples of the Code's impact are instructive:
In 1956 and 1957, the Legion of Decency revised its classification scheme to acknowledge the concept of audience maturity. To deal with Bette Davis' Storm Center, a drama about book burning by anti-communist extremists, a new classification was created, "Separate Classification," which was to be used for "certain films which, while not morally offensive, require some analysis and explanation as a protection to the uninformed against wrong interpretations and false conclusions" (Miller 180).
The Legion next expanded its "A" rating into three sub-categories: A-I, "morally unobjectionable for general patronage"; A-II, "morally unobjectionable for adults and adolescents"; and A-III, "morally unobjectionable for adults" (Miller 180).
Gradually, pressure built for a new approach to film content, and Supreme Court decisions in 1968 established the doctrine of "variable obscenity," that is, what was legal for adults could still be considered obscene for children.
After a half-century of censoring movie content, the Production Code was replaced in 1968 by a system of age classification. This system has experienced successive tinkerings with categories and descriptions: "PG-13" was created in 1984, and the "X" rating was replaced in 1991 with "NC-17".
So, since 1968, the rating system approach for movies has tried to regulate and control the content of audiences rather than the content of movies, based on suitability for children and adolescents of varying ages.
A similar approach was adopted in the U.S. by the video games industry, by the music industry in their advisory stickers placed on rock and rap music, and most recently, in January 1997, by the U.S. television industry. However, the pressures to substitute content control systems continue to be felt, particularly in the area of television programming.
In the U.S., these rating systems are now "voluntary". In Canada, governments impose and administer the system for motion pictures and videos, while for television, the imminent V-chip system will be "voluntary", like its American counterpart.
In Alberta, the government-imposed film classification system has 4 categories of audience based on perceived age-appropriateness:
Alberta's audience rating system is supplemented with descriptive warning labels for movie content regarding violence and horror, language, sexual content, and suitability for children - though there is no standardized approach to wording or application of these warnings, and the choice of terms changes from week to week. The "warnings legend" used by the Board as of December 26, 1996 was as follows:
So what we see here is an attempt to graft a content rating system onto the audience rating system - at least a rating system for selected content themes of sex, violence, and profanity.
Nonetheless, the audience control approach to films is still unsatisfactory. Lack of consistency is inherent to both the systems and their application.
So, for example, if the "warning legend" used by the Alberta Censor Board last December is reorganized, the similarity among terms relating to violence becomes readily apparent - as well as does the inherent difficulty in clearly distinguishing among them for any coherent and consistent usage:
Another problem with the classification systems in effect in the Canadian provinces is that they use variant terminology for their categories and variant age cut-offs for the different categories. Parental or sometimes adult accompaniment is required for 13 and under in several provinces, in Quebec for those 12 and under, and in Manitoba for those 14 and under.
Television content ratings have a history too. As early as 1957, Citizens for Decent Literature protested questionable programs, and in 1977 boycotts led by Donald Wildmon were organized to protest sex and violence and overly permissive shows on television. He later headed the Coalition for Better Television and the American Family Association, threatening to boycott the sponsors of programs he found objectionable, and in 1993 campaigned against the police series "NYPD Blue", the first R-rated series.
In 1996, the same Association demanded that the Justice Department open a criminal investigation of CompuServ because of alleged violations of the "indecency" provisions of the controversial Act mentioned above that has been found unconstitutional and is now before the Supreme Court on appeal (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom July 1996). And in 1992, the Christian Film and Television Commission, based in Atlanta, announced that it would update the old Production Code.
For the typical television viewer in Canada, the V-chip will cause even more immediate havoc than the variable film classification systems in effect among the provinces, an inconsistency that is invisible to the individual film goer.
Eventually, Canadians will have both the American V-chip classification system for television programs (TV-Y7 and TV-Y for children's programs, together with TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-M), and the Canadian system (CTR-C for children under 8, CTR-C8+, CTR-FAM, CTR-PA, CTR-14+, and CTR-18+). In addition, the Canadian system includes a provision for exempt programming, CTR-E, which covers news, sports, documentaries, other information programming, talk shows, music videos, variety programs, and presumably advertising.
There is an irony here: television programs for children and younger teens may include ads for "R" rated movies! More: many programs will not be rated, including children's programs and advertisements.
The central problem revealed by these variant systems is ambiguity: What does each rating stand for? Does it stand for content deemed average fare because it is average parents and other average adults who classify films and programs? Or do ratings stand for content deemed harmful? (Miller 243)
It is quite evident by the designated ratings so far that television producers have gone far beyond the original calls for ratings of violent content. Indeed, based on the criterion of violence, there is no excuse whatsoever for Baywatch, Roseanne, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons to be rated "PG" - not to mention the Late Show with Dave Letterman and Maury Povich. Absurdly, NYPD Blue and The X-Files get only a TV 14 rating, as does Jay Leno's Tonight Show. These suggest to me an odd mix of morality-based ratings rather than ratings based on violent content.
Moreover, serious consistency problems are presented by the recent television rating system adopted in the U.S. Why does the Jay Leno show get a TV-14 rating, Dave Letterman TV-PG, Rosie O'Donnell TV-G, and Oprah Winfrey no rating at all (so far)? Moreover, why is the series rated rather than each individual production? Other comparisons are also instructive. Here are the following selected television program ratings as of May 1997:
Another source of evidence that the original focus has disappeared is viewer inundation with "discretion advisory warnings". The extremism which this trend has reached is illustrated by an announcement on the 10 o'clock CBC television news on October 10, 1996 about the aftermath of the Gulf War: "Some viewers may be disturbed by the photographs in this story." To whom was the 10 p.m. news advisory directed? Children of six? Is this fair warning, or paternalism? Of course we ought to have been upset by them. Of course this is not pleasant. But it is reality - it is the consequence of our actions as a society.
Another was the inexplicable warnings attached to Alfred Hitchcock and The Hitchhiker that I noticed last month:
Why "may"? Don't the producers know? These are blanket advisories issued from fear and caution rather than from any serious content analysis based on age appropriateness.
A delightful response to these systems was one I heard in a theatre last fall that was part of a pre-film sound track: "This movie is rated PG [Parental Guidance]. So parents, if there's something you don't understand, ask your kids." (Nov. 26/96)
Another was the following notice before a television program last fall:
Moreover, with television series, it is the series that will be rated, not individual episodes. Considerable variation from episode to episode is therefore a real possibility.
In the end, the questions remain: Do film ratings provide consistent advice to parents? Do they protect kids from harm? Or do they merely perpetuate the establishment's elitist view of the status quo?
These historical and contemporary questions and events serve as context for the following analysis of the implications for Internet and other blocking technologies of theory about readers and theory about information retrieval systems.
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The response of a reader to any text - whether a text is viewed narrowly as print on pages or understood much more broadly as any symbolic representation from which we draw meaning - is seen as a confluence of the text itself, the reader's personal history, and the reader's reading history.
To a certain degree, therefore, readers participate in creating the meaning of a text, based on their own reading history and their own personal filter of cultural, moral, and aesthetic values. In this dynamic, the meaning that a particular reader ascribes to a text may or may not approximate the author's original conception - or, for that matter, any other reader's conception.
Hence, rather than being fixed and objective things, texts are essentially ambiguous. Reader response theory is captured in a familiar expression: It's in the eye of the beholder.
I am reminded of a sobering lesson in the persuasiveness of this theory that the Saskatchewan Film Classification Board furnished us with 3 years ago (1994). Do you remember the film "Exit to Eden" featuring the now sanitized Rosie O'Donnell talk show host, a sort of satire on middle-class sexuality? The Saskatchewan censors were aghast at the leather and bondage represented in the film, so they banned it - only to find they had profoundly miscued, and overnight became the laughing stock of the world.
Another illustration was the public reaction to an announcement several years ago that a local radio station in Edmonton (Alberta) was planning to "go gospel," that is, to play Christian-based religious music of various kinds that would appeal to a wide range of age groups. In a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, one writer was outraged:
This denunciation prompted several contrary views, one of which was the following:
What these anecdotes illustrate, and what reader response theory reveals, are the twin requirements for any blocking, rating, or labelling system: prophecy and clairvoyance. Anybody attempting to control creative expression in such a fashion has to be able to predict the future about probable - and even improbable - censorial targets, which in turn means being able to read the minds of potential complainants and figure out their tolerance limits on pretty well every imaginable subject.
Here are some other examples from my own censorship research and from the popular press that reveal the unpredictable ways in which people uniquely interpret texts:
Or the charge three years ago by a Pentecostal minister in the U.S. that the Sesame Street Muppets Bert and Ernie are gay:
Or the support by a committed Christian and popular culture specialist, Gerry Bowler, for the television program The Simpsons, which he argues is the most religious show on TV. After studying 138 scripts, he praised the characters for having some sort of spiritual life (Douglas Todd, Edmonton Journal December 7, 1996, G5).
Reader response theory is especially relevant in considering text for children, taking into account their enormous variation in emotional development and psychological maturity not only at the same age, but also at different stages of growth. Maturity is not a simple function of biological age: one 12-year-old is nearly an adult, another is closer to childhood. To accommodate the vast diversity of needs represented by such broad age groups means that young people must individually - and continuously - seek out their own level of reading, viewing, and listening interest.
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Their fear is that the mere awareness of an idea is to be already proselytized and harmed by it, that description or narration is the same as endorsement, advocacy, encouragement, indoctrination, and glorification. They see no distinction between portrayal and promotion, between exposure and seduction, between knowledge and action.
This is the "sponge theory" of reading effects - also known as the "copycat syndrome", "monkey see, monkey do", "the devil made me do it" - the devil in this case being text.
The rationale for this fear of the power of words is unknown: perhaps this fear issues from a belief that ideas are unavoidably and mysteriously contagious and therefore dangerous, or perhaps it arises from a profound distrust of the rest of humanity's foundation of moral values and capacity for critical thinking. ln either case, a strong sense of personal responsibility for one's actions goes unrecognized in this view of human behaviour.
Within this mindset, children are believed to be especially vulnerable. Casting wide the net of the chronological "child" and the legally circumscribed "minor", advocates ignore variation among children in favour of a single-minded uniformity that suppresses adolescent sexuality and sexual development - not to mention curiosity and self-awareness. They are content, perhaps even relieved, to have 18-year-olds confined to the world depicted in pre-school picture books or the "Dick and Jane" pablum of my own elementary school age years - a pablum, incidentally, laced with arsenic in the stories we were told about North American aboriginal peoples routinely marginalized as "savages" and "red skins", and African Americans as still other inferiors in the white male world of the 1950s.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the world of motion pictures, evidence of belief in the sponge theory begins with the beginning of the medium. As early as 1912, the press claimed that a young boy killed in an attempted train robbery had been inspired by The Great Train Robbery - even though it was not showing in his locale.
Contemporary echoes abound. A team of Indiana University psychologists warned recently that the on-screen boorish antics of Beavis and Butt-head encourage bullies and violent schoolyard behaviour (Jamie Portland, Edmonton Journal, December 16, 1996, p.C1). And in 1993 an Ohio woman blamed the cartoon for encouraging her 5-year-old son to set a house fire that killed his 2-year-old sister (Maclean's Magazine, June 17, 1996).
It even extends to the spoken word. For fear of contamination, in one major city in North Carolina, teachers are forbidden to say the words "masturbation", "orgasm", "bisexual", "gay", "homosexual", "lesbian", "transsexual", "transvestites", and "abortion". Below grade 8, they are forbidden to say "birth control", "condom", and "contraception" (Susan N. Wilson, Censorship News winter 1996, 4).
And in another locale, Antioch, California, fifth-grade teachers were ordered to leave out bad words and edit the graphic details of the deaths of two characters in My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom January 1997, 25).
The sponge theory goes hand in hand with a belief in the magic wand effect: If you wave away all that nasty "creative expression" - all that vulgarity, profanity, obscenity, violence, ugliness, and general offensiveness that pollutes the Internet, music, books, films, video games, and television - then our values will be restored and society saved. Without offending words and images, everything will be better.
This kind of thinking is the confusion of words and things, as if language was embedded in nature and society, and words were merely signs placed on them. But words and images don't - can not - cause bad acts. Messages in art are influenced by social conditions and attitudes - not the other way around. As one critic of the badly misnamed Parents' Music Resource Center has noted about its obsession with rap music lyrics, young blacks spent a decade speaking out against a racist society, with no visible effect, before inventing this distinctive form of protest:
Scapegoats are so much more malleable and actionable than root causes. A recent New York Times columnist, George Johnson, has expressed the issue:
Stopping people from knowing what's out there can never solve the problem of what is out there. Nor can we then confront and critique what we don't know about. Witness the chair of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, Charlach Mackintosh, in a recent incident involving racist expression: "We want to curb racist thoughts and sentiments before they're uttered unthinkingly" (editorial, Edmonton Journal, December 2, 1996, p. A6).
Limits on exposure to ideas can not be imposed through artificial rules and recipes. What this means is this: We have to trust kids to make good judgments as they learn how to distinguish good ideas from bad ones. Exposure to ideas is essential in the transition from dependency as children to independence as young adults. Exposure to ideas is a very personal matter of family values. We need to eradicate adult amnesia and remind those who fear words about the reality of childhood experience and growth, that children, like adults, learn vicariously to avoid a great many real-life experiences.
The unfortunate difficulty for conservative thinkers is that reality really is radical. There is unpleasantness in life. Millions live in poverty. Corporations plunder and pollute. Violence is the principal political response to conflicts, particularly conflicts between nations (Bush and the wars against Panama, Nicaragua, Iraq as the first rather than the last strategy for conflict resolution, etc., etc.). Violence in child rearing has traditionally been widely supported - and practised. The world is more terrifying than anything we could ever say about it or capture in images.
The empirical irony, however, is that in Canada we have neither a youth-crime epidemic nor an increase in general social violence. On the contrary, violent crime has decreased over the past few years and the homicide rate has been stable or decreasing for 25 years (Lydia Dotto, University of Toronto Magazine summer 1996, 10; Katrina Onstad, Saturday Night, March 1997, 54). Now what does this tell us about the alleged link between media images and social violence? Nothing that the advocates will listen to. Indeed, what it suggests is that there is no link whatsoever, because we know that images of violence in television and film are more or less constant if not increasing.
Last month, the findings of a study to reduce violence in children were released. Through a four-month program of violence prevention, focusing on empathy, problem-solving and anger management, children from pre-school to grade nine are taught how to control aggressive behaviour (Edmonton Journal, May 28, 1997). Although I have not yet verified this in the original research report, the press notice made no mention of television or other media portrayals as factors in aggression.
Belief in the sponge theory should not be ridiculed, however. There are indeed people who are gullible and susceptible to suggestion, however improbable. Witness end-of-the-earth hysteria that regularly feeds media profits: the imminence of millennium madness is an unparalleled bonanza in media marketing.
Nonetheless, it is not the business of free speech - or of librarians - to protect the foolish from themselves by ensuring that all public expression is aimed at the level of a particularly slow 5-year-old. Nor is it the business of either free speech or librarians to protect the young from ideas. Rather, it is a very personal matter of family values and family decisions.
In spite of the fear of words that some people exhibit, the ramifications of reader response theory are clear: multiple readings of texts, changing forms of word fear, and variant notions of reader maturity make the prospects for successful Internet blocking, TV program rating, and other forms of labelling rather dim. The urgently-needed prophets and clairvoyants are in short supply to make these avoidance strategies work.
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Internet blocking programs offer a variety of technical options that are based in varying degrees on the notion of freetext searching:
The software programs also allow the user a variety of other options: to select a list of sites containing content deemed suitable for children as the only ones available to them, to block unrated sites, to add your own sites or offensive words list, to report all sites visited or just site violation attempts, to issue warnings, to shut down the Internet connection or restrict access to the computer if a certain number of forbidden sites is accessed, to restrict access based on time of day and even on total Internet time used, to block out-bound transmission of credit card numbers, family name, home address, and telephone number.
The more common blocking programs currently include CyberPatrol, CYBERsitter, CyberSnoop, Internet Filer, Net Nanny, NetShepherd, Parental Discretion, Rated-PG, SurfWatch, Tattle-Tale, and X-Stop.
There is no standardization, however, in their capabilities or approaches to blocking content. Some have a pre-programmed list of "offensive" terms, sites, and topics. With some software programs, the list of blocked term, sites, and topics is freely available, but the majority consider it a valuable commercial secret. One wonders why a parent would buy an unlabelled can of soup or tin of baby food. How is this secrecy protecting the consumer? Why is disclosure on a food product more important than disclosure on a mind product? Curiously, customers are permitted access to periodic lists of updates.
Even though the goals of Internet blocking technologies are to prevent information retrieval rather than to facilitate it (they are a sort of "black hole" system that sucks up offending symbols into a dense sludge of idea anti-matter), their operations are similar to those of conventional retrieval systems - as are the challenges and problems that they must face.
Like text itself, retrieval systems are also ambiguous. Since they are bounded by language, their language is also fluid and subjective, susceptible to nuance, imprecision, inconsistency, cultural variation, and unpredictable change over time.
The goal of indexing in retrieval systems is to provide a systematic guide to the contents of a knowledge record, whether that record is a document or a group of documents. The guide is an ordered arrangement of terms, descriptors, or other symbols to represent the record and its content.
More generally, indexing names information. It gathers together ideas into categories so that everything on a subject can be identified. To accomplish this end, the following intellectual operations are involved:
The intellectual operations involved in representing subjects in a retrieval system pose immediate problems for effective retrieval:
With Internet stoplists of words and phrases and sites, the problems of identification are similar to the problems of free text searching: free text searching assumes that "aboutness" relates to an individual word, not to a context or a concept. This kind of word-focused searching is inefficient because coextensiveness is ignored and exhaustivity can not be obtained.
The problem of "aboutness" is also relevant to the blocking of Internet sites that deal with topics offensive to some people - homosexuality, drugs, sex education, abortion, feminism, to name a few. This approach entails the great irony that sites arguing against these topics will also be suppressed: anti-gay sites, anti-drug sites, anti-sex education sites, anti-abortion sites, even sites for recovery from sexual abuse. The upshot is that there can be no public debate at all through the forum of the Internet when these blocking technologies are used in this fashion.
Word and site blocking strategies pigeonhole ideas. With a broad sweep, these strategies indict all representations of violence, sex, and other targets as bad. They treat one four-letter word as more important than 400 pages of story, 400 measures of music, 400 screens of information. When "aboutness" is deemed to relate to individual words instead of to concepts, the goals of suppression will fail.
In one program option, "x's" or blank spaces are substituted for the offending word or phrase. The result is to make gibberish of the text; for example, Karen G. Schneider, a librarian who writes a column for American Libraries, reported that when she tried to verify the OCLC record for Our Tribe by Nancy Wilson, the following appeared:
And there were odd blanks in all four 650 fields:
Similarly with a title by the well-known Bishop Spong on human sexuality:
The most egregious blocking makes the offending words, sites, and topics utterly invisible to the searcher. The searcher is completely unaware that suppressed information even exists. The only way one would discover this would be to search for already known items, sites, or topics. So for example, if a web page reads, "X is a staunch anti-homosexual conservative....", the word-blocked version would be something like: "X is a staunch anti-conservative...."
In Yahoo!'s "Society and Culture" category is a heading for sexuality, but if you use CYBERSitter, that topic simply does not exist - it disappears completely.
Also invisible to the searcher with CYBERSitter is anything that remotely concerns homosexuality. As a spokesperson states: "We filter anything that has to do with sex. Sexual orientation is about sex by virtue of the fact that it has sex in the name." Such a policy also blocks the news group dedicated to Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard, alt.sexy.bald.captain.
But the program does not stop there. It blocks the sites of organizations such as NOW, National Organization for Women, as well as sites that contain obscene and indecent material, hate speech, and advocacy of violence and illegal behaviour. CyberSitter makes no apology for its choices:
Similarly, CyberPatrol assigns each undesirable web site to at least one and often multiple categories that range from "violence/profanity" to "partial nudity/art", "sexual acts/text", "gross depictions/text", "intolerance", "drugs and drug culture," "sex education", and "militant/extremist" (Carroll and Broadhead 563).
In the corporate mindset at CyberPatrol, "gross depictions" casts its umbrella wide enough to block the sites of animal rights groups because some show pictures of syphilis-infected monkeys and dogs tossed in garbage dumps.
And the broad sweep of their "militant/extremist" category takes in a site run by a regional group of the NRA, the National Rifle Association.
Like CYBERSitter, CyberPatrol also blocks sites about homosexuality, including a gay news newsgroup, a gay journalism newsgroup, the Queer Resources Directory, and a gay youth support newsgroup. Feminism is also targeted, including many feminist newsgroups and an abortion newsgroup, the NOW site, and Planned Parenthood.
SurfWatch recently blocked the entire library web site of the Archie R. Dykes Medical Library! Why? Because homosexuality is blocked and therefore the term "dyke". And last year, in its relentless search for dirty words, the word "couple" was added. This resulted in blocking the White House site because "couple" appeared in a reference to the Clintons and the Gores (Barbara Dority, The Humanist May/June 1996, 19).
It also blocked the site for Super Bowl XXXI and a hockey site because of news that a player had been sidelined due to a groin injury (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom March 1997, 29).
These examples serve to illustrate the variety of problems that are equally inherent in Internet blocking programs as in more conventional retrieval systems.
Consistency in the assignment of index terms is a well-known problem. Inter-indexer consistency studies show over and over again that there is a great deal of variation in levels of agreement on the assignment of terms representing the subject content of a text. Consistency between indexers ranges from a minimal 4% to 82% (Markey 1984, 155-160).
Greater levels of consistency are achieved when indexers choose terms from a controlled vocabulary, with consistency scores then ranging from 34% to 80% (161).
In light of these long-known findings, why would Internet and V-chip technologies achieve the much higher rates of indexing consistency, exhaustivity, specificity, and certainty that their advertising rhetoric claims? Their assurances are of child safety, protection, 24-hour monitoring, empowering parents, keeping an eye on everything, "a truly complete solution to the issue of violence on television" (Richard Stursberg, Cablecaster April/May 1996, 10), "very sophisticated methods of controlling access" (Carroll and Broadhead 1996, 560), subject categories that "are rated to a fine level of precision for objectionable content" (Kathryn Munro, PC Magazine, April 8, 1997, 236), a "fully interactive rating, classification and information management system" (Carroll and Broadhead 574).
Even when the promotional claims are more qualified, however - when, for example, the promise is to provide for the "relative safety" of children exploring the Net (Munro,1997, 235); or that "Programs that censor the Internet but also eliminate useful knowledge can be refined" - the vast majority of potential consumers will not long remember the qualifiers and the fine print - if indeed they notice them in the first place.
In reality, the new technologies do not live up to their promises at all. In a recent study conducted by Consumer Reports of 22 easy-to-find Web sites that had been judged by investigators to be inappropriate for young children, not one of the four most common software blockers - CyberPatrol, CYBERSitter, Net Nanny, and SurfWatch - blocked all of the sites. Net Nanny failed to block any of the 22 sites, while 14 were blocked by CYBERSitter, 16 by CyberPatrol, and 18 by SurfWatch (Consumer Reports, May 1997, 30). These rates are far below the levels that parents and other consumers have been lead to expect.
Why such low rates of indexing consistency, exhaustivity, specificity, and certainty? And can Internet programs be refined so that useful knowledge will not be eliminated? How sophisticated are the methods of controlling access? Is the main factor merely computer programming? The answers are found in the essential ambiguities of language itself and in the challenges that language presents for retrieval systems.
We have multitudes of synonyms and antonyms and euphemisms, puns and double entendres, and generally slippery terms like "objectionable", "patently offensive", "degrading", "harmful", "morally dangerous", and "pornographic". We have those notoriously slippery legal concepts in North America - "obscenity", "undueness" as in undue exploitation of sex, and "community standards" - as well as the newer concepts being lobbied for legislative sanction, among which the most prominent in the U.S. is "indecency".
We have homonyms, such as "gay" and "pump" (words with multiple meanings), and homophones, such as tale and tail (which are but homonyms for the "spelling-impaired").
We witness new terms invented, such as "cyberporn", and older terms twisted into new meanings, such as "political correctness". We witness terms gradually going out of fashion, such as the slang use of "safe" for "condom".
There are inherent category problems. Categories leak! (Trinh T. Minh-Ha 1991, 119). Is all violence of the same kind? Is a punch the same as a beating, cutting off a finger the same as cutting off a head? Is all violence degrading? Harmful? Should nudity and sex be designated in the same category? Is erotica the same as the sexually explicit? Should author intentions and artistic integrity be taken into account?
A small-scale example I came across in an Edmonton bookstore last fall was a handwritten sign above a shelf of magazines that read: "Must Be 18 Years of Age to Read." And on the shelf immediately below it were the following titles: Playgirl, Penthouse, Playboy, Heavy Metal, Men's Workout, and Health. Below that were: Fishing, Golfing, Running, and Baseball.
We also have a very special feature of retrieval systems: materials both for and against a subject are "about" the same topic, and are therefore normally gathered together under the same classification number and under the same index term. In other words, indexing is not just a perspective, it is about a perspective.
So, for example, in order to provide access to the abortion literature, both pro-choice and pro-life materials are classified under the same number in Dewey, and of the many subject headings available in Dewey is "Abortion--ethics", and in LC "Abortion--Moral and ethical aspects". Furthermore, even an index term such as "Pro-life movement" will encompass critiques of the concept.
In short, retrieval systems are a kind of "fuzzy system", designed to accommodate vagueness, partial truth, and lies just as easily as exactitude, refutation, and true belief.
All of the problems of retrieval language surface with the two subjects most commonly targeted by Internet and V-chip blockers, sex and violence. These subjects represent very broad categories with enormously variant terminology. Their usefulness as indexing concepts is severely constrained by the opposing goals of aboutness and relevance, as well as of exhaustivity and specificity.
A good example is the term "breast cancer". Should this term be prohibited speech because it contains the word "breast"? Should "sexual abstinence" be prohibited because the stem "sex" appears in the phrase? And what about words like "safe", "bitch", "fairy", "pansy", "queer", "crab", and "cock", all of which have at least one non-sexual meaning in English? What about "Barenaked Ladies", the pop music group? Would blocking software cope with them any more effectively than a former mayor of Toronto was able to? How will blocking software distinguish between the sexual and non-sexual uses of these and hundreds of other terms? Is there room to take into account redeeming social value? Artistic integrity?
The subject of violence is equally ambiguous. From war to holocaust revisionism is but a short step in blocking software if the only focus is violence. So too is the distance from the Crucifixion and American slavery to "Home Alone 2" and "Exit to Eden". Can blocking software recognize gratuitous violence from the authentic kind? Is it possible to present graphic violence without being graphic? One critic of the V-chip has observed that:
For blocking technologies, the problems of the portrayal of sex and violence are more or less the opposite of those encountered with the portrayal of hatred. The portrayal of sex that offends the Internet and V-chip blockers is explicitness. The very words evoke eroticism. The only problem is that there are hundreds of them, and more being invented every day.
In contrast, hateful language, whether it be the language of misogyny, racism, ethnic xenophobia, or homophobia, is frequently "coded". Most bigots know enough to couch their hatred in analogy and metaphor and in neutral or positive terms like "equality". Overt terminology is carefully avoided in favour of the appropriation of descriptive categories such as "welfare moms", "special rights" and "special status", "equal opportunity", and "multiculturalism".
There are even more disturbing aspects of the software phenomenon. The raw power to prevent and punish non-conforming expression is nowhere more blatant than in the current attempts by some software providers to suppress public opposition to their own ventures.
In retaliation for criticism on the Internet, CYBERSitter's "bad word list" was recently revised to block access to sites containing the phrase "Don't Buy CYBERSitter!" as well as to the site for Peacefire, a student organization opposing Internet censorship. CYBERSitter has also blocked the site for The Ethical Spectacle, apparently in retaliation for the Webzine's criticism of the company that owns the program, Solid Oak Software.
And CyberPatrol has similarly gone to extreme lengths to suppress criticism, blocking any site that opposes it or its approach to content control. In fact, even communicating with CyberPatrol to ask questions about this results in a message from the producer accusing the inquirer of harassment.
A recent example of CyberPatrol's attitude towards criticism is the blocking of web pages pertaining to Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace, by Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan (Henry Holt, 1996) - perhaps under the guise of "militancy/extremism" if they bothered to try to find any ideological self-justification? It also blocks the Electronic Frontier Foundation archive.
To sum up the lessons of retrieval theory, Internet and V-chip blocking systems would appear to be worst case scenarios of indexing. In these operations, the text is dissected on the basis of a pre-determined corporate value system into selected parts, which are then highlighted for prohibition or access restrictions. Wholeness and context are sacrificed; integrity of text and reader are ignored in favour of a single, uniform standard of "safe" words and ideas.
Ethical indexing respects the integrity of the text because it renders the text accessible to the reader. Ethical indexing looks to reasons for facilitating access, not prohibiting it. It is similar to ethical conduct in collection development, in which reasons are sought for including rather than for excluding materials.
These are the general criteria for ethical indexing. However, do these principles still apply to the indexing operation when the goal is restriction or prohibition, rather than access? I would suggest that the answer is yes, but that it is unethical indexing. It violates textual integrity and it disrespects the reader.
Indexing effectiveness issues from the interplay of indexer subjectivity and the text. The naming of information through indexing is of necessity personalized: there must be a perspective, a viewpoint (Dale Spender). And since the naming of information for retrieval involves control, an exercise of power is involved. The ethical exercise of that power requires continuous self-awareness and self-reflection in the decisions that the indexer makes. It also requires that decisions and their bases are made public and subjected to public debate.
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These ambiguities and dynamics prevent blocking strategies from ever being successful in controlling the world of ideas at a level of consistency, exhaustivity, specificity, and certainty that would be sophisticated enough to satisfy critics.
Instead, what they offer is the illusion of success, an illusion that comes with a high price tag. Since indexing for any retrieval system is about the control of ideas as much as it is about access, the danger to intellectual freedom is always high. The crude, paternalistic strategies adopted by blocking systems should serve to remind us that authority control keeps some voices out just as easily as it lets others in. What I think we're really getting is "censorware" - software for Internet censorship - and the "Bre-Chip" - a salted TV minefield of fraudulent claims and illusions.
In the meantime, however, Internet software programs and V-chip systems are gaining in popularity because they are being presented - in the marketplace and in the political arena - as more or less benign, objective, and neutral means for content regulation and self-regulation. Even the cyberterms "filtering" and "filtration" disguise the reality of their operation.
In my reading, this stance of neutrality and objectivity has not, to date, been sufficiently contested by librarians. I would like to see librarians enter into the public debate through their institutions and associations, as well as individually by virtue of professional training.
Indeed, far from being benign, objective, and neutral, these technologies are corporate-driven forms of state-promoted censorship. The motivation is the potential for enormous profits by the private sector if every household with children - or perhaps grandchildren, or even visiting children - comes to feel compelled to buy, or subscribe to, their products.
What we are witnessing is the manipulation of the public good for private gain through fear, fear for the "safety" of our children. Net Nanny advertising, for example, says: "Protect your children and free speech on the Internet." And: "Net Nanny is watching when parents aren't."
V-chip supporters have made similar claims about its potential for television programming. We hear the same mantra endlessly: the V-chip will give parents unprecedented power to monitor their children's TV viewing;. Or at least it will give them "some level" of control over what other people are putting into their living rooms (Wally Hill quoted in Maclean's Magazine v109 June 17, 1996, p.42).
And, in a public statement about Canada's new TV-ratings system, announced in early May, that was probably more revealing than intended, one supporter said: "This will be a very useful tool for those parents who are concerned about certain types of programming and have enough money to see their cable bills go up by a couple of bucks a month" (Kealy Wilkinson, national director of the Alliance for Children and Television, Globe and Mail, May 6, 1997 - emphasis added).
Politicians are fuelling the public's fear and panic. Recently, U.S. Senator Dan Coats was reported to have said:
And at the hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court of arguments challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act on March 19, 1997, Seth Waxman, deputy solicitor general for the U.S. Justice Department, claimed that the Internet provides children
This fearmongering has even lead to the absurd position taken by the U.S. government in its arguments before the Court that the challenged legislation is necessary to protect free speech rights (Censorship News spring 1997, p. 4).
And Ontario Provincial Police Detective Bob Matthews, who heads the force's pornography crime unit, is reported to have said that the Internet means
The same unit admits that most of the videos in their offices are there to impress visitors from the media, and are not necessarily illegal under the Criminal Code (Mary Gooderham and Brian Laghi, Globe and Mail, December 14, 1996, A10).
Attributing the status of causality to symptoms is the single most valuable weapon that unthinking and unscrupulous politicians possess. Actually, when it comes to television programming, we ought to sue the CRTC for putting us at risk. After all, the U.S. has had the V-chip since January 1, 1997, and Canada is now bereft of this protection. Is the CRTC not to blame?
These technologies are nothing but a smokescreen behind which some politicians make public noises to hide their failure to tackle fundamental social transformation and some parents hide their feelings of loss of control and their guilt at spending so little time with their children. These technologies are quick fixes that give the illusion of action, control, involvement, and responsibility. But the reality of child care is much less amenable to solution.
None of these strategies - codes, ratings, warnings, labelling - has ever accomplished anything more than the illusion of success, because they are all attempts to impose an objective, simplistic standard of description and measurement on what is essentially a complex and highly variable matter of personal tastes, values, perceptions, and levels of tolerance.
What they promote is internalized censorship, a far more effective approach to preserving the dominant ideology in society and suppressing nonconforming expression, than any state censor could ever hope to achieve. Only the bravest are willing to go very far beyond the invisible boundaries where good taste becomes obscenity, pornography, immorality, blasphemy, sedition, or some other nonconforming expression.
The fruits of illusion and internalized censorship are complacency. Society is mislead into believing that the real problems are bad images and bad ideas, and that if we get rid of those we'll have a good society. Witness the naivete of a mother who suspected her 2-year-old might be picking up nasty habits from TV, because whenever wrestling was on, he'd start kicking and pushing. "The V-chip is really helping," she said. "I'm less concerned about what he is watching when I can't be there with him" (Maclean's Magazine, March 25, 1996, 56).
Moreover, when retail giants in the video, music, and theatre businesses refuse as general policy to distribute products with certain ratings and warnings, the potential for suppression is increased greatly. Wal-Mart, for example, has an explicit ban on all music carrying a warning label or else electronically masks profanity and alters album covers, while Blockbuster Video will not carry videos rated NC-17 as well as others such as "Natural Born Killers" (Neil Strauss, Edmonton Journal, November 25, 1996, p. B4). When this is coupled with the chill on creative expression, free speech rights for both creators and consumers are debased. The upshot has been that many creators are producing two versions of their products, the sanitized for mass market merchandising, the authentic for other outlets.
I do not believe that bad ideas or images produce bad kids. I suggest that we should worry much more about lack of information than about too much and the wrong kind. Today, children of ten, at least in the industrialized world, have more information available to them than their grandparents had in an entire lifetime. And through many different media channels. There are no reasonable grounds to fear contagion or uncritical acceptance of ideas. What should concern us is young people who have access to only one view of the world, young people brought up with no knowledge of choice, of multiple sources of information. That is my fear - too little information. Not too much.
But for this to work means that we also have to be able to trust their parental role models. Good parenting is at the centre. When it comes to TV, parents make the best TV guides (Wendy Josephson, Canadian Press Newswire, May 2, 1996) - not some invisible rater with their personal moral agenda. This is just as true for the Internet as for other media. But we must also face the reality that some parents will raise their children just as badly as society will tolerate, and that this level of failure can not be the standard by which public institutions such as libraries set their service policies and guidelines.
Nor are labelling and blocking substitutes for the reader's advisory service traditionally offered by public librarians. These substitutes are over-simplifications of the unique matching activity of reader with text that librarians assume as part of their service function.
I'd like to urge librarians to contest these distortions and exaggerations. I'd like to suggest that they help to refocus public debate back to fundamental social policy objectives and the strategies to achieve them.
There have always been two basic strategies for achieving public policy. The first is education, to achieve critical reflection and collective intelligence. The second is legislation and criminalization, to achieve control and suppression.
So, to illustrate with a persistent Canadian controversy, holocaust revisionism, do we spend a million dollars to prosecute one Zundel for peddling hatred and bigotry, or to educate a million kids to recognize and ridicule these evils?
Perhaps there are other strategies, a middle ground?
Let me close with these reminders. Technology is no substitute for conscience. And signing away moral authority to faceless Internet guardians is no substitute for family responsibility and critical awareness. Nothing can harm us - or do us good - without our permission. Bad ideas don't produce bad kids; bad public policy and bad parenting do it.
I hope that librarians will work to dispel fear and moral panic about the Internet and about kids generally, and instead help to promote understanding, trust, and confidence in our future.
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Statement by the Association of Teacher-Librarianship in Canada:
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