Censorship — Ur Doin It Wrong. And That's Why A Mandatory Filiter For AWS-3 is a BAD IDEA!

I am, of course, the last person in the world to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t advocate for and how they should or shouldn’t filter themselves. Thus, I have no quarrel with the decision of the American Family Association and how they choose to display the news (provided they comply with all relevant laws pertaining to copyright, defamation, etc.) True, I most vehemently disagree with their choice of “pro-family” agenda. I personally think families will benefit more from resolving the pay gap, better laws on paternity leave, and family friendly work policies than focusing on the behavior of consenting adults. But hey, that’s what the First Amendment is all about, so we can have these debates.

So the fact that AFA apparently thinks “gay” is too nice a word and has its news reader automatically replace it with the word “homosexual” does not raise any issues for me — I’m even willing to defend this as a fair use alteration of the text for political speech. But as the good folks at People for the American Way noted (and captured on their own website — ain’t the First Amendment grand?) it can have some humorous and unintended consequences. In this case, the accidental “furtherance of the homosexual agenda” by substituting the word “homosexual” for the proper last name “Gay,” which is a problem now that “Tyson Homosexual” is breaking speed records. Man, I always knew Homosexual could run the distance! What champion.

This would merely be an amusing little anecdote were it not for the fact that the FCC has proposed mandatory network-based indecency filtering as part of the AWS-3/M2Z proposal now out for public comment. For those just tuning in, this is the proposal to create a the equivalent of a free wireless DSL line supported by advertising and a premium service the FCC has out on public notice (comments due July 9).

I promise to try to get a much longer post out on the AWS-3 proposal, but let me focus for a minute on the mandatory filtering (which is not mentioned in the text of the FCC Notice, you have to actually read through the rules). As we can see from this relatively harmless example, filtering is a blunt instrument that often does more harm than good. Even with the increase in computational power from Moore’s Law, blah, blah, no automated filtering system can even come close to making the sort of contextualized judgments of what constitutes indecency that the Constitution demands. Heck, even human beings can’t agree on what makes something indecent and what makes it art. Whenever social networking sites or search engines or whatever get pressured into breaking out the broom in the name of the children, it invariably wipes out cancer support groups, rape survivor groups, and a bunch of unrelated stuff like chess.

And the FCC wants to require that the free network, accessible to every American, will also judge whether a future headline such as “Gay Doping?” is a discussion of a possible Olympic sports scandal or an advertisement for a same-sex rave?

I can laugh about the American Family Association and their personal filter follies that harm no one but those who chose to use their news service. But I shudder to think this may be the fate of our national broadband safety net.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Just wanted to add that one of the AFA’s sister organizations, the Parents Television Council (PTC) is responsible for 99.8% of all indecency complaints to the FCC.

  2. Me bad…not affiliated with the AFA, but will definitely be in common cause with the AFA.

  3. I won’t comment on how b0rken the AFA tool is, but it’s my technical opinion that even a very well-written program to do what the AFA is doing, written to process newswire text, would at best be 90-95% effective. That error rate includes both false alarms (Tyson Gay, breast cancer) and misses (creative or new terminology, slang).

    How does that square with an FCC requirement?

    And that’s on news. If they think they can do this on arbitrary text like you find on the web, they’ve got another think coming.

  4. My favorite story is that COPA required a study and report of filtering technology. The Commission assembled was, I believe, led by Dick Armey. Well guess whose website was filtered. Heck, I believe even the COPA Commissions website ended up getting filtered. Here are some other things that got filtered

    * Amnesty International
    * American Family Association
    * Banned Books On-line
    * The Religious Society of Friends
    * The Safer Sex Page
    * The Web site of Rep. Dick Armey
    * Dozens of Web sites of candidates in the last election
    * Child Online Protection Act commissioners’ pages that had the word “cum” (as in “magna-cum-laude”) in the bio
    * Information on China’s response to the spread of AIDS
    * National Association of Women
    * People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
    * The American Association of University Women Maryland.

    An archive of a bunch of old reports dealing with filtering can be found here http://www.cybertelecom.org

  5. Deeply Offended

    Actually, there is one technology that does excellent news translation–the Shizzolator, which translates boring news copy into the language of Snoop Dogg. Unfortunately my workplace seems to block the site that at least used to provide this valuable service…http://www.asksnoop.com.

  6. In our corner of the woods, I don’t think Homosexual Ellen would appreciate that automatic substitution.

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