This is a pretty amazing article about how censorship
software effects people (especially kids). It's really
great that PeaceFire is there for keds to talk about
their experiences in this area.
I found the part about the kid in the school library not
being allowed to access some sites for research pretty
appalling... It seems to me that there's got to be a better
Would love to hear your thoughts on this.
To Be Young,
18-20 April 97 If you want to know why the Web is a medium of the
young, if you want to see for yourself the revolutionary
[Image] potential of the Internet to transform politics, connect
Special Report the disconnected, tell the truth, build new kinds of
by John community, and give voice to the voiceless, check out
You can't be
cyber savvy and Peacefire is a revolutionary space where teenagers from
civil-liberties all over the world can gather to form a political
simple community, share values, fight for political rights, and
support and defend one another from continuous assaults
[Image] on their freedom, judgment, and dignity by journalists,
Media Rant politicians, some parents, educators, and some members
by Jon Katz of organized religion.
kids rally for Interesting in its own
their rights right, Peacefire has to be seen in context to be truly
online understood. It was created and grows against the
surreal, manipulative, and profoundly dishonest
discussions about morality and the young that take place
Features: every day in mainstream media and politics in the United
Daily Poll States.
generosity? In l995, the National Committee for Prevention of Child
Daily Quote Abuse counted more than 3 million reports of abuse and
Washing neglect of children in America. It also counted 1,215
corruption out reported fatalities, more than three a day. According to
of their hair an article by Dale Russakoff in the current issue of The
New Yorker, the same three characteristics are
Threads overwhelmingly associated with these deaths - single
Fellow netizens parenthood, poverty, and substance abuse. These figures
discuss are not widely known, nor have they been widely
Post of the day reported.
In defense of
the Robertses In contrast, to my knowledge no child has ever been
Noise killed directly or indirectly by the Internet - yet it
Seth Fearey is almost impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine
or watch a newscast without being confronted with a
Netizen Archive warning about the Internet and threats to children's
safety from child pornographers, kidnappers and
seducers, bombmakers, hate-peddlers, cultists, or sexual
The young live in an irrational world, where outside
dangers are continuously invoked as an excuse to curb
their freedom, curtail their choice, control their
lives, and deny them even the most minimal basic
In that context, Peacefire is a landmark, a new kind of
media community. The Web site was founded by Bennett
Haselton in August, l996 - he was 17 at the time, and is
now 18 and a junior at Vanderbilt University, majoring
in math and computer science. The average age of
Peacefire's roughly 650 members is 16.
There is no equivalent of Peacefire anywhere in
traditional journalism, where the young are invisible
and are routinely demonized as decivilized, ignorant,
and wanton. Journalism's notion of appealing to kids is
weekly supplements with cartoon cutouts, wash-off
tattoos, and NFL stickers.
But if the young are voiceless in mainstream journalism,
they can have power and voice via new technologies like
the Web. Their voices are all over Peacefire - in fact,
their voices are what make up Peacefire - and they make
a lot more sense than almost any of the people who talk
about them in the guise of protecting their moral lives.
Haselton founded Peacefire because the embattled
anti-censorship groups existing on the Net were slow to
grasp the implications of the "quick fix" censorship
blocking systems (like Cybersitter, Net Nanny, and Cyber
Patrol) on freedom of speech and the lives of minors.
Many free-speech advocates on the Net initially either
tolerated or endorsed blocking software in an effort to
appease media and political critics, and to quiet
mounting hysteria about the dangers facing kids online.
Peacefire had no trouble grasping the implications of
blocking software on minors, probably because its
members feel its effects more directly than anyone else.
Peacefire points out, for example, that if you download
a page containing the phrase "gay rights," Cybersitter
will delete the phrase and fill in the space with
surrounding words. Cybersitter also blocks the Web sites
of the National Organization for Women, the
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission,
and The Penal Lexicon, a British-based Web site
dedicated to raising awareness of prison conditions in
Cybersitter blocks Peacefire, too, and threatened to sue
the site last December.
Peacefire gives embattled kids one of the first places
they can go for help and support.
A 15-year-old member of Peacefire who lives in Alabama
contacted the Web site because he was blocked from the
gay-rights section of Yahoo! while researching an
English project in his school library. Because the URL
he typed in contained the words "sex" (in the middle of
"bisexual"), he was given this message instead: "This
Page Blocked By Cyber Patrol."
The assignment was to research topics for persuasive
speeches, and as he was the only one in his class with
experience using the Web, he stayed in the library
computer area to help his peers. One of them was
researching a speech on gay and lesbian rights.
His experience is a perfect example of the noxious
nature of blocking software.
All other pages in this category were similarly blocked,
He approached the librarian and invoked the First
Amendment, but was told that since this was a school
library, the First Amendment didn't apply.
Stop for a second and consider this story. A high school
student is sent to the school library on assignment. He
is neither apathetic, addicted, nor isolated. He was
researching topics for persuasive speeches. He
voluntarily offered his own expertise and time to help
other students use the Web. He isn't playing videogames
or looking for pornography. He is advancing educational
goals and, in the process, giving generously of his
The blocking software the school has installed
apparently doesn't permit the researching of any topics
involving sex. It doesn't ask him to explain what he is
doing, or request the intervention of a teacher or
adult. It simply denies him access to information he
needs and is entitled to see. He is subsequently told
that basic freedoms extended to every adult American
don't apply to him or his classmates. Free speech, he is
being taught, is only free when Cyber Patrol says it's
It's hard to imagine a more invasive or demeaning
experience, or a more immoral message. The idea that
this kind of blocking technology protects the young or
enhances their morality is repugnant and absurd.
Blocking software, not books and ideas, should be banned
from libraries and schools.
This 15-year-old's experience brings vividly to mind the
writings of J. M. Coetzee, a South African writer and
censorship scholar. It applies to the young as well as
to older people:
Working under censorship is like being
intimate with someone who does not love you,
with whom you want no intimacy, but who
presses himself in upon you. The censor is an
intrusive reader, a reader who forces his way
into the intimacy of the writing transaction,
forces out the figure of the loved or courted
reader, reads your words in a disapproving and
Perhaps the real significance of this disheartening
anecdote isn't just that it speaks to the humiliating
and demeaning treatment inflicted upon even the most
responsible teenagers, but that the student had - almost
surely for the first time in his life - a place to take
Peacefire not only provides him with a community, but
also with information on disabling censorship
technology; the history of individual blocking programs;
legal rights and precedents; writings, arguments, and
rulings relevant to free speech and the rights of
children in the digital age; and anti-censorship
graphics to download and display.
Journalism has little interest in free-speech issues as
they relate to children's rights, since they are much
too absorbed in transmitting hysterical warnings about
cyber addiction and Net pornography. The president of
the United States and most of Congress made their
sentiments clear by passing the Communications Decency
Act, which would criminalize hundreds of thousands of
teenagers by making it a federal crime for them to talk
about their sex lives, real or imagined, online.
Peacefire refutes the persistent libels of the young as
stupid, disconnected, and too weak-minded to make
rational judgments for themselves. It demonstrates the
radical political potential of the Internet to connect
people in communities, who previously had no way of
communicating with one another.
Communities are more powerful than individuals. They are
sprouting up all over the Web, creating new kinds of
political realities and opportunities. For the young
particularly, the opportunity to come together to talk
about the real moral issues they face in their lives is
nothing less than miraculous.
Peacefire also underscores the still-unrealized
potential of the Net to transcend ignorance, repression,
and dogma. To tell the truth, and pass it along, right
over the heads of the very many people who always have
and always will prefer to block it rather than face it.
. . . .
by Jon Katz
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