Interactivity and Censorship On the Agenda for the Web

by Derek Winkler

Two scenes from the current state of the medium known as the Internet, as viewed from Canada in the month of May in the year 1999.

One: Tim Berners-Lee was in Toronto May 12-14 for the eighth annual World Wide Web Conference. This ain’t Internet World. No sales drones in suits. No flashy booths. No product demos. It’s a hardcore computer science Woodstock where the hardest of the hardcore computer science folk heroes come to chew over questions like, “”How do we keep the web from flying apart at the seams for another year?” All the technical papers presented are available at http://www8.org if you need some light reading. Tim Berners-Lee is The Man at a gathering like this, because he’s the guy who invented the World Wide Web. Just thought it up because it seemed like a good way to solve a problem he had back in 1989. Then gave it all away for free because he thought it could solve some problems for some other people too. Needless to say, when a guy like this comes to your meeting, you let him give the keynote speech.

He took the opportunity to bitch about how it’s all gone horribly wrong. The web is full of useless junk, like a million zebra mussels trashing your oyster bed. Search engines suck and you can never find anything you’re looking for. Worst of all, everybody seems to be trying to turn the web into television.

Berners-Lee’s original idea was two-fold: First, every bit of data on the Internet should have its own unique address so you could create a pointer to it from anywhere else and jump directly there. We got that far with the URL and the hyperlink. Second, everyone would be both a reader and a publisher. You weren’t supposed to just sit there passively reading web pages and clicking from link to link. You were supposed to be able to annotate, to add in links of your own to other pages with different views, to retort or reinterpret, to add your voice to a seething global debate of continually multiplying bi-directional links. Instead, we got an electronic newsstand with a slightly better turnaround time on the letters-to-the-editor page, and interactivity defined as clicking on an ad banner. Tim Berners-Lee is pissed about this.

Well, guess what? Some guys at a company called ThirdVoice are trying to retroactively bolt-on the functionality that we were supposed to get from the very start. You download this piece of software that attaches itself to the side of your browser. From there on out, you can leave your own comments anywhere on any page on the web. Think a news site only covered one side of a story? Leave a note saying so, maybe pointing to some other site’s coverage. Think some megacorp is putting out crap and ripping people off? Stop by their pristine corporate web presence and leave a cautionary tale for your fellow travelers. As long as they’ve got the ThirdVoice plug-in too, they’ll see your annotations, and you’ll see theirs. This is the first half-way practical method the web has seen of reclaiming Berners-Lee’s original vision. The people who want to make the web into a point-and-click TV set are pissed about this. Screw ’em.

Two: On May 17 the suits at the CRTC held a press conference and said they weren’t going to touch the issue of regulating the Internet with a three-metre static discharge strap. “Not now, not ever,” was the exact quote. They said they didn’t want to smother the birth of the embryonic Canadian e-commerce boom. They said they couldn’t do it even if they wanted to because the Net is mostly text and they don’t have jurisdiction over text. What they didn’t say is that there was no way in hell they were going to take on the shitty job of trying to patch together some kind of policy that wouldn’t offend the palette of the political mainstream while simultaneously taking heat from fundamentalist groups wanting to delete any site not representative of traditional family values, rabid free speech activists operating multiple redundant mirrors of nazibastards.ca, and laissez-faire e-business visionaries who welcome government regulation of anything at anytime about as often as they welcome lepers into their swimming pools. Besides, the CRTC said, look around. There’s lots of Canadian content on the Internet, with more appearing every day, so we don’t need to force its creation.

This is true. There’s lots of Cancon on the web and lots of room for more. Unlike television, the web never runs out of channels, the programming day never runs out of minutes, and the official guardians of Canuck culture don’t have to lay down a law to insure us our own little house on the media prairie. Always room for another website. In most ways, it’s good that the CRTC has at least that much of a clue. It means all of us hosers with five megs of server space at some ISP won’t have to relocate to Caribbean data havens because our sites don’t have a high enough Cancon percentage. On the other hand, there were one or two shoes the suits in Ottawa dropped that may be cause for concern a couple of years down the road.

The CRTC report on New Media gives pretty short shrift to issues of potentially offensive content and what should be done about it. It begins by reiterating that the Broadcasting Act which gives the CRTC its authority does not apply to text-based material, no matter how offensive it is. Moreover, it goes on, there are lots of laws already on the books for dealing with stuff like kiddie porn and hate speech, so the courts can hack those precedents to apply to the Net as necessary. Finally, it notes very casually and in passing, there’s always filtering software.

Warning! Filtering software is evil. It takes decisions regarding what is acceptable and what is not out of our hands, or even the hands of our duly elected, theoretically accountable representatives, and gives them to a private organization which is accountable to nobody and may have an agenda of its own. Companies that produce Net filtering software almost always keep the list of banned sites a closely held secret, ostensibly for our own protection, more believably to keep it away from competitors, but more than occasionally to conceal the fact that these programs tend to censor out certain social and political views along with the smut and terrorist how-to’s. For a rude awakening about just how blatant this practice can be, check out , a site that was itself blocked by one particular filtering program.

Or consider the current situation in Australia. On May 26 the Australian Senate passed a censorship bill aimed at eradicating everything erotic from the Internet as experienced Down Under. One of the possible methods being bandied about for making the Web squeaky clean and suitable for children is the use of filtering software, either at the service provider level or on users’ home machines. Some backers of this bill even have a specific piece of censorware all picked out. As usual, the details about what gets blocked are not exactly printed in big letters on the back of the box, so one curious Aussie with a little spare time just fed the entire dictionary in one end of the program and checked to see which words didn’t make it out the other side. Along with forbidding the names of every part of the human anatomy which two people might rub together in a stimulating way, as well as every possible euphemism for sex (including the words banging, fist, foursome and pork), the program also gagged on the words alcohol, blonde, cigar, doom, gothic, homo, jenny, lesbian, pierced, quake and toys, among many others equally bizarre. Take a look at the entire list at and ask yourself exactly how much of the web would remain visible to the citizens of Australia if they could only view it through this pinhole. Now ask yourself if web filtering software is a good solution to the problem of offensive material for us in Canada. You’ve probably got a couple of years to make up your mind, but this issue will be rolling around this nation again sooner or later, so be ready to recognize it when you see it.

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