A number of things provoked this idea for a feature article:
Some feel that there should be stronger laws to protect users from access to potentially obscene information, others feel that laws will only seek to destroy the rich culture that the internet has created. Your comments are welcome! Please send letters to Ryan Deschamps at his email address, email@example.com . If you want your letter to be posted in the Chebucto Connections "Opinions" page, please be sure to give us permission to publish your letter, and remember to keep the letter under 500 words.
It seems that one of the hot issues on the Internet these days is the issue of pornography and censorship. There is no question that the media has flogged this story in quite a sensational matter. The debate if you follow it seems to ignore the fact that this is not a new issue. The question of obscenity, morals and the role of law has been debated for hundreds of years. (1) While the issues have changed little, it is the medium of the Internet that has rendered pornography a global phenomena and therefore much more visible to the public eye. To understand the present situation we are in, i t is necessary to know a little of the history behind this controversial debate.
Within Canada, we have had a long history of laws regarding obscenity going back to 1727 in the case of R. v. Curl. (2) The publishing of "obscene" materials has been illegal ever since the publishing of the first Criminal Code of Canada in 1892 (3). Criminal sanctions are, in Canada, used by the s tate as a mechanism to prevent "obscene" materials from being available for use. Paragraph 163(1)(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada (4) makes it an offense for anyone to:
---make, print, publish, distribute, circulate, or (have) in his (or her) possession for the purpose of publication, distribution or circulation any obscene written matter, picture, model, phonograph record, or other thing whatever.
Subsection 163(8), for the purposes of the Criminal Code, defines as being "obscene":
...any publication a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty, and violence. (5)
On the Internet, this could refer to obscene materials located on a computer network, server, web page, etc. However "obscene" materials could be distributed by using a computer in another country. Would this circumvent the law?
The issue of pornography is closely tied to censorship. There are organizations on both spectrums of this hotly debated topic. Some organizations located on the Internet or otherwise eschew any form of censorship, while others believe that it should be banned altogether. Companies on the Internet are dealing and profiting on this issue through the creation of software that will allow parents to filter out sexually explicit content. Perhaps this will be the compromise for dealing with sexually explicit material on the Internet.
Organizations and individuals who believe that the pornography should be censored are in the opinion that "the function of law is to enforce community morality." (6) Opponents to this believe the state should not dictate to its citizens what level of sexual explicitness will be tolerated as being "appropriate." This rol e is not for the state but rather for each individual to decide for herself or himself.
Many persons have argued that proponents of censorship are short-sighted because censorship simply does not work as a remedy. Lynn King agrees with this point of view. She writes:
Censoring pornography is like using aspirin to cure cancer: it might ease the pain but it does not eliminate the disease and may well have serious side effects. (7)
It has also been argued that censorship has never been in the past nor is it in the present an effective legal remedy. Censorship, it is thought, will not solve the problem of pornography because historically it has never been successful in restricting the availability of these materials. This argument is flawed because legal remedies seldom change social conditions of their own weight without a political process occurring at the same time.
"I have never heard of a legal remedy that was intended to be the sole solution to social problem or that would have much impact if there were no corresponding changes in perceptions or values." (8)
There has always been an assertion by those, who do not believe in any form of censorship, that the concept of liberty is absolute. This has simply never been true. For centuries democratic societies have set certain limits to freedom of expression. Libel and slander are two such examples. Obscenity is also a limitation. (9)
The state is justified in circumstances where "harm" may result, to validly place limits on the liberty of citizens. This is neither a new or revolutionary concept in Canada. The laws of obscenity is but one of several examples where state intervention on individual's "rights" to freely express themselves is accepted.
It can then be argued that access to obscene "materials" should be forbidden by the state on the grounds that they may result in harming women.
Unlike other crimes against women where the victim is an individual (e.g., rape , wife battering, physical assault, child sexual abuse, etc.), in pornography, women in general are harmed. The ramifications of the harms caused to women in general, by pornography can be seen as far reaching.
The perception of women as sexual objects restricts more than their sexuality; it also encourages sexual; harassment, makes it more difficult for women to be taken serious in non-sexual contexts, and provides a covert legitimization of rape. In these ways, it limits women's freedoms to travel safely alone and denies them equal opportunities in general life. (10)
So how does the issue of pornography on the Internet or in the rest of society affect us on a community basis? Dalhousie University has already posted a sign on their computer lab expressly forbidding the viewing of any sexually related materials. It states:
Offensive Material (is the title of the sign)
"Since it is nearly impossible to avoid seeing images displayed on other users' computer screens, or hearing sounds played, the display or playing of sexually explicit or potentially offensive materials in this space may create a hostile working or learni ng environment which violates university policy."
Dr. Larry Amey, Professor of Library and Information Studies at Dalhousie, moderator of the listserv I-Freedom, believes that the university's new policy regarding "offensive material" was hastily decided. He stated that:
"Oddly, the universities have been at the vangard of censorship of the net. This may be because computer technology types, rather than, librarians have been involved in making decisions. That is, these people have not given very much thought to intellectual freedom, whereas librarians have." (11)
No doubt these type of sanctions are being discussed or implemented in other educational institutions across the country. Within the public library, there are similar concerns. How can a librarian monitor a child's use of the Internet? Should they in any case? These discussions are occurring in public libraries across the country. Teachers and teacher-librarians are also seen as bearing the responsibility of regulating children's use of the Internet. Dr. Amey has observed that:
"Teachers and teacher-librarians have always been subject to loco parentis in the schools. They will bear this responsibilty with respect to the Internet too. Public libraries do not take this responsibilty with respect to their collections, nor will they assume it with respect to the Internet." (12)
Even on the Chebucto Community Net, sexual explicit materials can be found. Though a text-based browser like LYNX restricts some graphical materials, they can still be downloaded by a user. Usenet a service available to CCN users contains a great deal o f controversially related materials. This is not meant to point to the materials gratuitously but to demonstrate the freely availability of it.
The best way to understand the issue better is to read about it. The Internet has a copious number of resources related to both sides of this issue. I have taken the liberty to compile a list of resources that cover all points of view.
Please leave any comments you have about this article and/or the issue of pornography and censorship on the Internet.
- Internet Guide to the Communications Decency Act
- The CDA is "The Communications Decency Act of 1995,"a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Exon (D-NE), as part of the much larger telecommunications deregulation bill S.652. It was passed into law in February 1996. The guide provides a sampling of links ab out the CDA. Both sides of the issue are represented.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a non-profit civil liberties organization working in the public interest to protect privacy, free expression, and access to public resources and information online, as well as to promote responsibility in new media.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center
- EPIC is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values.
- The anti porn and pro CDA Page
- Links to pages related to these topics and which advocate similar opinions.
- Family Research Council
- Computer Pornography Questions and Answers
- The Family Research Council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that exists to reaffirm and promote, the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built.
- HotWired: Special - Free Speech First
- HotWired's stand on Free Speech and the Communication Bill.
- Cyberporn: ...a New Legal Bog
- A very comprehensive and scholarly survey of the subject.
- Project 2000 Web Server: Cyberporn Debate
- The Cyberporn Report
- "On July 3, 1995, TIME Magazine published an article by Phillip Elmer-Dewitt, titled Cyberporn. It was almost wholly based on a study entitled Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway, by a CMU Engineering undergraduate named Martin Rimm. Its effects are still being felt."
- Communications Decency Act
- The transcript for the Communications Decency Act. Read it for yourself.
- "Internet Porn Survey Raises Debate," [Associated Press, July 10, 1995]
- Rimm, Marty (1995), "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway", Georgetown Law Journal, 83 (June), 1849-1934. [posted July 11, 1995]
- A Survey of 917,410 Images, Description, Short Stories and Animations Downloaded 8.5 Million Times by Consumers in Over 2000 Cities in Forty Countries, Provinces and Territories"
- Controversial article by Marty Rimm that was quoted in Time Magazine and later rejected by many critics.
- Critique of the Rimm study: By Brian Reid: Digital Equipment Corporation: July 6, 1995
- Unpublished letter to the editor of Time Magazine. [Survey Working Group of the Internet Research Task Force]
- An Alternative to Censorship on The Web or A Voluntary Internet Content Evaluation System (ADDVICES)
- A review of present efforts to regulate the Internet, and a set of proposals for an evaluation system which allows the user to filter out undesirable sites by selecting site attributes.
- IFREEDOM is a discussion group serving as a forum on censorship and intellectual freedom. It is moderated by Larry Amey. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- To subscribe: send message subscribe ifreedom [your name] to email@example.com
- Content blocking
- Initial report from the Internet Law & Policy Forum's Working Group which is studying efforts to block undesirable content (widely considered). The plan is to report to a conference in January 1997.
- Censorship and the Net
- Yahoo's index to relevant sites, etc. Regularly updated.
- Freedom of expression resources
- Lengthy list of resources on freedom of expression throughout the world maintained by the Cyberspace Law Center.
- SafeSurf Kid's Wave
- List of SafeSurf approved sites by category for children. A safe "surfing" for children. Encourages sites to rate themselves so that the Internet will be a safer to be, especially for children.
- Breaking the Cycle
- The purpose of this site is to provide a non-judgemental, accepting, and supportive place for people struggling with pornography in all its various forms
1. K. Mahoney, "Obscenity, Morals and the Law: a Feminist Critique" (1984) 17 Ottawa Law Review, 33, at 33.
2. 93 E.R. 849 (K.B).
3. The Criminal Code of Canada and the Evidence Act (with their amendments including the Amendment Acts of 1901 and 1902), 2nd ed. (Montreal: Theoret Law Booksellers & Publishers, 1902).
4. Martin's Annual Criminal Code (Canada Law Book., Ontario, 1991).
6. J. Bakan, "Pornography, Law and Moral Theory" (1984), 17 Ottawa Law Review, at 5
7. L. King, "Censorship and Law reform: Will Changing the Law Mean a Change for the Better?" in V. Burtsyn, ed., supra, note 60, at 79.
8. Ibid., at 232
9. R. v. Red Hot Video (1985), 18 C.C.C. (3d), 1 at 4.
10. A.M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, (Ottawa: Rowman Allenheldm, 1983), note 62.
11. Amey, Larry, E-mail correspondance with Erez Segal, Tue, 19 Nov 1996.
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