While electronic freedom fighters wage battles to protect our access to information on the Internet, who is watching to protect us from harassment by information on the Internet?
Skirmishes in the access war currently center on whether schools and libraries must, or even may, use filtering software to block "objectionable" Web content. At least two counties—Kern in California and Loudoun in Virginia—have had their restrictions on viewing Web content at public libraries challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. At the same time, a bill is pending in Congress to require libraries and schools that want federal Internet access subsidies to use filtering software.
Filtering software is hardly foolproof. The Censorware Project (www.spectacle.org) in December reported that the popular Cyber Patrol program from the Learning Company blocked sites from, among others, the MIT Project on Mathematics and Computation and Explore Underwater magazine, claiming they had both "full nude" and "sex acts" content. That must be some Free Willy. And there's no small irony in the fact that it remains acceptable to take home all the non-electronic objectionable materials you can carry from libraries that might choose to block Web sites.
Even though filtering debates get all the First Amendment bluster, a quieter trend is potentially much more threatening to individuals. It's not what we're exposed to on the Web, but what's exposed about us—in many cases, also at the instigation of the government.
Take the efforts of the St. Paul, Minnesota, Police Department (www.stpaul.
gov/police). Since October, the department has posted the photos, names, ages, and neighborhood of anyone arrested for engaging in prostitution and other vice crimes. The key word here is "arrested." These aren't convictions; what little conviction information is provided is on a separate Web page, not cross-referenced, and infrequently updated.
Take the efforts of Michigan state lawmaker David Jaye (www.jaye.org). Also since October, his Web site has boasted the names, ages, and home addresses of all known sex offenders in the county he represents. Every posted rap sheet follows the disclaimer "We are not responsible for inaccuracies" and concludes with a photo of the smiling public servant posing in front of an American flag.
These sites appear to be little more than pandering by government representatives, to what they believe the public wants—at a potentially high cost to named individuals.
For those arrested or convicted of a crime, any listing is the equivalent of a worldwide life sentence—for the life of that Web page. For those who have served their time, moved to another area, and not re-offended, such public displays make a mockery of the concept of having "paid one's debt to society." Public agencies might as well bring back the pillory.
More chilling is the fact that no database is perfect. The St. Paul Pioneer Press says it used to print vice arrests, but stopped because there were so many errors. A bad street address on a sex offender list can subject an innocent citizen to harassment or worse. It's laughably naive to believe that providing this level of detail doesn't make it easier for vigilantism. I've never received so much as a traffic ticket, yet I shudder to think of the effect on my life of having my name or address accidentally appear on one of these lists through a one-digit street number transposition, a transcription error, or the efforts of a pissed-off hacker. As any telemarketing victim knows, once you get on a list, it's damned hard to get it off.
Some sites do try to strike a balance between protecting society and the individual. The private www.sexoffenders.net posts the names, ages, ZIP codes, and crimes of sex offenders in California. But it only does so for "high risk" offenders who have been convicted of three or more crimes in two or more separate proceedings, and it does not list home addresses. The city of Bellevue (www.ci.bellevue.wa.us/bellevue), apparently trying to warn families without running the risk of destroying lives, only lists the name, age, photo, and city block (as opposed to exact street address) of the highest-risk sex offenders.
Taken as a whole, the governmental filtering and publishing trends seem to reveal a perverse double standard: concern about societal harm to the near- exclusion of individual damage. The filter is being put on the wrong end of the Web pipeline. Perhaps it's time for a few vocal public servants to start relying on a different kind of filter, one apparently out of vogue in their technology-dependent thinking—their conscience.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com