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Should We Be Able to Censor What We See on the Web?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 7/15/2011

You see some crazy stuff on the Internet. Not only do you run across it on your website, but you also run the risk of seeing some things you'd rather erase from your mind on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites. I propose that we should be able to filter what we see online.

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    Freedom of Speech...

    Do we need a web filter equivalent of a gas mask? ...is a wonderful thing, isn't it? We can outwardly criticize political leaders, religious leaders, parents, educators, others. We can write works of fiction and create music with lyrics that will express the breadth and depth of human emotions. In fact, our right to free speech, part of that precious set of First Amendment rights, is most days a wonderful thing.

    Then, you go onto Facebook to check on some comments that were made on your post. Someone has used the F-blank-blank-blank word five times in a comment on your post. Your jaw drops. You work hard to maintain a professional image online. This person isn't even upset about anything. You decide that this unacceptable. The other person is upset when you delete the comment. You sigh. It's only 8:00 am and you've already had a minor drama-fest.

    Before you get much further in your online routine, you go to check if your favorite musician has released that new music video and see the following posts on your favorite musician's Facebook page:

    "Still I loved you, I love you, and I will continue loving you. But sometimes there are exceptions in love. And apparently you and I are one of those exceptions."

    "Know that my dreams will come truth.do so many things with you.want to do music of art with u.will you teach me how to play a piano.love you."

    -and-

    "Love ... just wanted to say I'm a fan since 89 and I love you very , very , very , very much ... You're my addiction, I have all their cds, you is simply wonderful my angel . I wish much success in this new phase . Kisses from Brazil "[1]

    You're in kind of a quirky mood and feeling quite sassy and you respond with something like "How can you love him? You don't even know him?" Suddenly more of those f-blank-blank-blank words pop up, suddenly you're the antichrist, and you're in the Facebook equivalent of a giant pile up.

    This sort of thing happens on YouTube as well. Just try leaving a comment that your favorite artist's newest music video...well...leaves something to be desired. On Twitter, the feed is often littered with random comments, links, and strange photos of strange men's body parts (c.f. Anthony Weiner).

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    Why We Might Want to Employ Filters

    Freedom of speech is an awesome thing. But as you can see, very quickly, it is easy to get offended—even if you're among the thick-skinned folks—on the Internet. Yes, you have some control over what people post on your wall, but when you post on other people's websites, you cannot control what you see or what your friends see (depending on privacy settings).

    It's not only a problem on social media websites. Consider for a moment your favorite blog, newspaper or television station online. Anywhere where you can view comments, you have the potential need for a filter. That's not the only place you might find a filter useful. While some search engines have the option to turn off adult sites that pop up, you still have to be careful. Enter the wrong word and you could be looking at...well...things that you do not necessarily want to see at the moment.

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    A Slippery Slope

    Any time you consider any form of censorship, you have to consider the long-range implications of that censorship. Say we offered Internet users built-in filters (imagine not having to run out to purchase programs like CyberNanny). Users could choose what they wanted to see on any website. If you went on Facebook, you could choose, say "PG-13" or "NC-17" depending upon what your tastes are. Any comment or status that doesn't meet that rating would be invisible from your view.

    Think about that for a moment. Think about all the websites, social media networks, message boards, forums, video players that would need to be reviewed and rated. Who will choose what is acceptable content? Who will set the ratings? How will the ratings be applied in a standard manner across the board of all websites?

    On network TV, 20 years ago the B-blank-blank-blank-blank word was not allowed. Now it's commonplace, and you sometimes find the word in PG-13 movies. Not even movies are rated the same. What might be a light R-rated film to one person has been rated PG-13 by the committee. My first thought is that it will be even more difficult to apply ratings to written content. We don't rate books. Why should we rate web content?

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    Big Brother

    Even if we had a filter system where you typed in particular words or phrases you did not want to see, things would get through. The only real way to maintain a filtering system would be to employ a censor. The problem with employing a censor, especially for a forum like the Internet, is that doing so does begin to encroach on the right to freedom of speech. Who is this censor to decide what is appropriate and what is not appropriate? Pretty soon, one would worry that the censor would start to ban things like "I disagree with the president's thoughts" because they might pose a threat to the well-being of the society. Yikes. That's paternalism at its worst.

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    What Filtering Would Mean for Your Blog or Website

    If there were effective filtering measures, life would be much easier for the web operators. No longer would you have to spend hours deleting obscene, spammy and aggressive comments from your blog or website. Even when you elect to first review comments and posts, you still have to spend time reviewing them. If there were filters, then it would save businesses precious time and resources that would be otherwise committed to these activities.

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    Finding a Middle Ground

    In the early days of America Online, if someone said offensive things in a chat or IM (something that happened all the time), you could report them for violating the terms of service. The problem with this was that it was hard to enforce, and it became kind of a joke. What needs to happen is that there needs to be a middle ground, but how?

    Filtering software is often expensive and annoying to use (just ask any parent who has helped their child search for a research topic online). One could offer the adage "Don't look if you don't like it." I think we could all agree that something needs to happen. Between cyber-bullying, obscenities and spam occurring online with greater frequency, it would seem as though we ought to do something.

    But what is it we should do? How do we filter the Internet without killing the spirit of the Internet?

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    References:

    [1] Actual posts, authors removed to protect anonymity, from Jordan Knight's Facebook fan page.

    Vaizey, E. "Web Filtering: Why a Great British Filter Will Be Useless." Guardian.

    Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1085783