People are talking about internet content filtering, especially since the ACLU won its case against the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which tried to censor all speech about sex from the internet. But don’t be confused between voluntary use of filters as an alternative to a criminal statute and governmentally imposed filters. ACLU First Amendment attorney Chris Hansen explains more about filtering and when it works and doesn’t.
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Filtering has been shown to be quite successful in blocking sexual sites, but at a price — it over-blocks. As much as 20 percent of all internet content can be over-blocked by some filters, including valuable nonsexual material. Reports by the Kaiser Family Foundation (PDF), Consumer Reports, and the Free Expression Policy Project (PDF) have all found that filters improperly block important web sites about health, sex education, civil rights, and politics. A recent test by the San Jose Public Library (PDF) of three software filtering programs even found substantial over-blocking of information in resource databases and online catalogs of available books. Parents can decide that price is worth paying but it is another thing altogether for the government to make that decision for all of us.
The ACLU is currently working in several states to prevent censorship of online information due to the use of overbroad internet filters. For more detail on ACLU cases about internet filters, see http://www.aclunc.org/tech and http://www.aclu-wa.org/detail.cfm?id=557.