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Internet Filters

Internet filters are software programs that control what is shown while a computer user is viewing pages on the World Wide Web. Emerging on the commercial market for home use in the mid-to-late 1990s, the filters are designed to protect minors from viewing pornography, hate speech, and other controversial online content. They work by intercepting and blocking attempts to view particular web pages and their controls cannot be disabled except by an administrator. Marketed primarily toward parents who wish to allow their children to surf the Internet without constant adult supervision, filters currently available include Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny, and Cyber Snoop.

Government interest in filters emerged after early, unsuccessful attempts to directly regulate Internet content. Prompted by the explosion of popularity in Internet usage in the early 1990s, lawmakers responded to public complaints about the accessibility of pornography. While such imagery represented only a small percentage of web sites, studies have shown it amounts to as little as 2%, Internet search engines made locating the material easy even for young people. Thus, unlike with printed material controlled at the point of sale in newsstands and bookstores, minors using the Internet could obtain or accidentally suffer exposure to hard core pornography. In an effort to combat this problem, Congress first sought to control what could be shown on web pages.

  • The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) was passed to prohibit Internet users from communicating material that would be deemed offensive to minors under contemporary community standards. The controversial law carried fines and imprisonment for offenders, but enforcement was immediately blocked by a federal court. Attacked by critics as censorship, the law was later overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment in Reno v. ACLU in 1997.
  • The Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA) was passed to meet the objections of the Supreme Court to the CDA. The new law attempted to be more specific in order to overcome constitutional problems, this time targeting commercial purveyors of material deemed harmful to minors. However, in 1999, it, too, was immediately blocked by a court injunction, and subsequently a district court and federal appeals court both found the law unconstitutional because it would require every Web page to abide by the most restrictive community standards. The Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal, ACLU v. Ashcroft, scheduled for 2002.
  • When the courts proved unwilling to allow federal control of what was communicated, lawmakers pursued a new avenue. Internet filtering offered a mechanism by which the law could control what was received on pulicly-funded computers connected to the Internet. In December 2000, Congress passed both the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and the Neighborhood Internet Protection Act (Neighborhood Act), highly similar bills that were added to an appropriations measure, signed by President William J. Clinton and enacted as Public Law 106-554. Together, the two acts place restrictions on Internet usage in public libraries and public schools that receive federal funding. For enforcement, the law employs a carrot and stick approach: continued computer and Internet funding depends upon libraries and schools using filtering software and, in some cases, establishing broader controls as part of a new, comprehensive Internet safety policy.

Federally-required Internet filtering in schools and libraries immediately proved as controversial as earlier congressional measures. In particular, critics argued that Internet filtering software is highly imprecise; it has the tendency to erroneously block harmless, non-pornographic material as well because it cannot determine the context in which the material it filters appears. As the law went into effect in Spring 2001, litigation promptly followed. Separate lawsuits brought by the American Library Association (ALA) and another by a coalition including publishers and civil liberties groups challenged the law on First Amendment grounds similar to those brought successfully against the CDA and COPA. After a court found that both challenges have valid legal grounds to continue, trial was scheduled to begin in February 2002.

Inside Internet Filters