If individuals retain a moral obligation to filter the inappropriate material accessible to children online in the same way they have done for off line material, society as a whole could achieve what legislation has failed to do; control what our children see and post online. If this new moral paradigm is achieved we can provide safe environments for our children online without the need for government intervention and tight legislative controls. For this to occur though, we must first assess the data surrounding our fears and desires for control of online environments, and seek a better accord of how the internet acts as intermediary for offline behaviors. This essay will focus on the social desire to filter pornography and other material deemed inappropriate for children, because child protection issues are often the point of convergence between freedom, as promoted by the anti-censorship movement, and of the control trumpeted as necessary by the pro-filter lobby.
“While pornography, hate speech, or other materials might be deemed offensive to some and acceptable to others, the strong desire to limit access to such material by all or a majority of individuals is at the heart of the Internet censorship debate” (Depkin, 2006).
In Villeneuve’s (2006) piece The Filtering Matrix, he states that censorship is either a moral or legislative process were society as a whole agrees on what content an individual may produce or consume (Villeneuve, 2006). One of the most common legislative techniques used to control access to inappropriate content online has been the use of the Internet filters implemented in countries like China where citizens are in favor of its implementation (August, 2008 & Fallows, 2008). The other common legislative proposal to aid in internet censorship has been the prosecution of Internet Service Providers who allow users to gain access to ‘illegal’ content (Bambauer, 2008 p.14). Depkin (2006) states that; “To date, the Internet censorship movements have taken two predominant forms: limiting what can be viewed or what can be posted on the Internet” (Depkin, 2006). While the problems and issues our children face online are very real and of great concern, digital anthropologist and expert in online youth culture dahna boyd (2009) strongly believes they “cannot be solved by filtering the content” (boyd, 2009). boyd (2010) goes on to say that even basic censorship, such as taking down notices and search engine blocking “is nothing more than whack-a-mole, pushing the issue elsewhere or more underground” (boyd, 2010). If the filtering of online content is merely removing the problem from the public eye by forcing people to use Virtual Private Networks, Peer-to-Peer technologies and Proxy Servers to access this content, then legislative control is not the answer. Therefore the filtration of content available to children online needs to be moderated through a new moral paradigm, rather than through the filter of government intervention and legislation.
Plato a forefather of democracy advocated a personal responsibility for the censorship of material consumed by children, which was based on individual morality. He said that we should each be morally responsible for the censorship of literary material that could harm or influence children (Hains, 2001). He also encouraged individuals to ‘exercise control’ over what media they and their children produced (Hains, 2001); a moral paradigm without the need for legislation to control the sort of media children consume and produce.
“Plato advocated the strict censorship of literary materials for children, arguing that early exposure to fiction can cause children to overly identify with fictional characters and subsequently emulate their worst characteristics. Thus, Plato contended that it was society’s moral obligation to exercise control over everything children see, hear, or read (Heins 2001). This theme of guardianship over the innocence of youth is one that has been repeatedly espoused by advocates of censorship even up to the modern day” (Anon, 2010).
According to this doctrine, we should all be responsible for filtering the content our children access online. In the same way producers of pornographic magazines, videos and other physical adult products have the moral obligation to keep those products out of the reach of children, this obligation should also be extended to the producers of adult digital content that is disseminated online. Conversely, in the same manner that parents have hid their inappropriate photos, naughty magazines and adult video tapes from their children, so too should they now employ these tactics to ensure their children cannot access adult material online.
The internet is only an intermediary of offline behaviors (boyd, 2009), it has become a point of contact where our children can have access to inappropriate material. The problem is not the omnipresence of the medium, but our reluctance to take on the same moral responsibility, shown in the past, to moderate the online experience of the most vulnerable. The Australian classification scheme treats all video disseminated on the World Wide Web as if it were material produced for a physical market (Bambauer, 2008 p.9). While we previously assumed a personal and social obligation to keep such material from children, we now look to censorship, filtration and legislation. If boyd’s (2009) theory that online behavior merely mimics offline behavior is true, than the obligation to keep physical adult material like books, magazines and videos out of the reach of children is the same individual obligation to filter what digital material they consume online. One argument against this idea is that the web disseminates more adult and pornographic material than previous distribution technologies making it harder to hold back the tidal wave of inappropriate material, although boyd (2009) suggests that we need to use data and fact rather than opinion to ascertain if this trend is actually true.
In 1975 the Sony’s Betamax video tape player went on sale in America (Owen, 2008). This was followed not long after by a similar machine built by JVC called the VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) that played a slightly different format to Betamax (Owen, 2008). History shows that although both versions of the video cassette remained in circulation for almost a decade, the VCR’s cassette eventually won the home video ‘format war’. Many commentators on the topic of the home video ‘format war’ including Wasser, (2002 p.94) argue that the demise of the Betamax format could be attributed to Sony’s reluctance to allow adult content or pornography to be distributed using its format (Wasser, 2002 p.94). This was in sharp contrast to the amount of pornography being distributed on VHS tapes. Wasser (2002, p.94) reports that up to 80 per cent of material available on VHS during the 1980s was of an ‘adult nature’ (Wasser, 2002 p.94). Wasser (2002 p.94) and Owen (2008) both pontificate that had Sony been more open to the dissemination of adult material – that arguably made up such a large proportion of the market – the Betamax format may have stayed in circulation and may have even won the ‘format war’. During the mid 90s Rimm (1995) claims that up to 83.5 per cent of content available online is of an adult or pornographic nature. While this figure has been widely debated (Depkin, 2006) it is interesting because it mirrors the percentage of pornographic content that was reportedly disseminated by VHS in the height of its popularity. Therefore, boyd’s argument that online behavior is merely an intermediary for offline behaviors rings true in this case, so surely the ‘individual burden’ of the moral responsibility to filter inappropriate content for children, is no greater now than it was during the 1980s before the ubiquity of the World Wide Web.
Self-regulation and individual responsibility to moderate content accessible to children online has been advocated by scholars past and present. If each individual fulfilled their moral obligation to act as content moderator, than society could achieve what legislation fails to do; control what our children consume and post online. Data from VHS cassette sales in the 1980s reveal the majority of content sold was of an adult or inappropriate nature to be viewed by children. This trend has been repeated on the World Wide Web, but our sense moral obligation has not shifted to the new medium. The internet acts as intermediary for offline behaviors and therefore the moral responsibility is the same. Individual obligations to provide safe online environments for our children is the only way to achieve the desired outcomes for both sides of the internet filter debate. A new moral paradigm that protects children without the need for government intervention and tight legislative controls that restrict freedoms.
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