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ICANN must move past internal bickering

How to protect kids without violating the Constitution.

Regular readers know two of my pet causes: trying to effect change in the top-level domain system in order to keep kids safe from pornography; and serving as a watchdog for organizations looking to invest in filtering software. These two causes are interwoven. If we can find a way to create a new top-level domain (TLD) that protects kids from borderline abuse, we can rid ourselves of the need for puritanical filtering software in public schools and libraries. It would be much easier to keep kids safe and we would be rid of the dual specters of censorship and church/state issues.

My .xxx top-level domain scheme received lots of support from everyone but ICANN’s board. After I got hundreds of readers to e-mail members of ICANN’s board coaxing them to consider the idea, I received less-than-complimentary responses from the keepers of the domain system. The idea was reviled by Vint Cerf because it would mean legislation banning porn sites from using anything but the .xxx domain. Other board members were less courteous; one of them even sent me a virus.

Though less well-known, I have written several times about how woefully inadequate the current crop of filtering software is. Much of this relates to my background in linguistics: Filtering software is doomed to fail because it uses far too simplistic semantics to do a respectable job. Even with the most unbiased methods, the software filters out legitimate study areas (such as breast cancer research), while doing a pretty poor job of filtering out pornography (the infamous Seinfeld problem). And, as we shall see, few filtering companies are unbiased by conservative religious leanings.

Recent research by Nancy Willard of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon has uncovered a startling fact: Most filtering software is created and aggressively marketed by conservative Christian groups. The mission statements of these groups often mention Biblical standards for choosing to block content (I guess they mostly stick to the New Testament, probably just “Ephesians”). And all of them sell their products to public schools and libraries, who are obliged to install them by the Children’s Internet Protection Act. The details of the act were mostly written by these groups, who used their Moral Majority lobbying to push the act through Congress. The result is, most of our publicly educated kids are barred from viewing content about sexual orientation, religious tolerance, and other “non-Christian” values while at school.

I have nothing against Christianity. In fact, I am a practicing Catholic. But it seems to me this is just the sort of thing our founding fathers wanted to prevent when they drafted the Constitution. I will not preach to the choir here. Ms. Willard made her arguments forceful enough by simply stating facts. And I will follow her lead. But there is a better way. The act mandates a “technology protection measure” and the most effective and easiest one to develop involves a change in the TLD system. If Vint Cerf thinks the .xxx domain would be too difficult to enforce, how about going the other way? How about taking up the measure proposed by Congress last year but later dropped because of ICANN’s resistance? I’m talking about a .kids TLD that would be exclusive to “kid-friendly” content, in a more open definition of that term than the fundamentalist Christians want to see. Why don’t ICANN board members stop bickering amongst themselves about their own constitution and do something to protect our Constitutional rights?

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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