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Online censorship: Avoiding the Gray Area Problem

Dec 12, 20054 mins
Enterprise Applications

Last week I looked at a proposal called the CP80 Internet Channel Initiative that is intended to “clean up” the ‘Net. As I discussed, this proposal is, at best, a complete waste of time. At worst, I see CP80 as a dangerous political tool.

There has been a lot of feedback on Gibbsblog and in letters to this column on the topic, and there are a few issues we need to clear up.

In Gibbsblog an argument over whether CP80 is censorship came up, and I had to resort to the dictionary: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, defines a censor as a “person authorized to examine books, films or other material and to remove or suppress what is considered morally, politically or otherwise objectionable.” The definition of censorship from the same source is the “act, process or practice of censoring.”

So censorship is the correct term, whether the material is removed or suppressed. The goal of the CP80 initiative is to reduce availability, which is suppression, which is censorship. The technical proposal, the CP80 channels, is not in and of itself a censorship system; it is merely a poorly conceived mechanism for making the censorship categorizations apparent. The actual censorship proposed by the CP80 initiative would be based in law.

In legal categories the problem with censorship and the inadequacy of CP80 lies. For example, when you try to define pornography, the extremes are easy to determine: Mary Poppins, not porn. Linda Lovelace (at least pre-1974), porn. But what about Goya’s “The Naked Maja” or Nabokov’s Lolita or the movie of that same book?

This is an example of the Gray Area Problem, the problem of defining which classification something belongs to when its attributes are not quantifiable. Because of this, the argument over whether something is pornographic ends up being based on opinions driven by personal, religious and cultural prejudices, so fairness, objectivity and rational thinking tend to get jettisoned.

But in the middle of the CP80 issue is the Internet. Again, do you realize how often the Internet – and for that matter information technology – is demonized?

In the case of CP80 it is easy to see the back story: The goal is simply and transparently political. The various players want to get something done about pornography and the Internet, and CP80 is just a stalking horse to frame the debate and garner political capital.

The channels that CP80 suggests are meaningless without laws that have teeth to rein in anyone who violates the standards of a given channel and whoever frames those laws gets serious political clout.

But if you admit that it is impossible to define to the satisfaction of everyone concerned what is and is not pornographic, then we need a strategy that avoids the Gray Area Problem and the law.

I have an answer.

Web content should be classified according to the ethics and morals of each interest group. So we might have one group that thinks porn is OK, another that thinks soft porn is OK, another that doesn’t like soft porn but doesn’t mind South Park, while yet another thinks that Mary Poppins is a bit racy.

Now if we could get Web sites to start using a scheme like the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), then those people and organizations that are really careful will block any site without a PICS label.

Sites with PICS labels would be cross-checked by users against public databases that would be run by each of the groups. Those sites that present a rating that a group doesn’t agree with would be identified in the group’s database as in violation, so on cross-check they would fail. This would be a reputation system of sorts.

The beauty of this scheme is it doesn’t require any legislation and makes everyone happy. Whaddya think? Tell, or jump into the Gibbsblog discussion.


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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