Sex, censorship and the Net

There's a war going on between wannabe Web cops and those who like their Net unregulated. Is Internet censorship inevitable? Cringely exposes his thoughts.

I don't know what it is -- the holidays, the waning days of the Bush Administration, or just something in the air -- but the war over sex on the Net has reached a new and disturbing level.

To recap:

Last week, Ning gave the heave-ho its XXX-rated social networks, giving them 'til New Years Eve to pack up their toys and find a new home. YouTube tightened its chastity belt, pushing naughty if not exactly XXX-rated videos to the bottom of its slush pile.

A conservative Christian investment group issued a list of the most immoral video games, though the group's ratings seem to hinge as much on the games' endorsement of "alternate lifestyles" (i.e., pro-gay) as the degree of murder and mayhem inside them.

The Australian Supreme Court just declared Bart and Lisa Simpson "real" people in the eyes of the law, upholding the conviction of a man who had lewd images of the underage cartoon characters doing the nasty on his hard drive. (Thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "the land down under.")

And for the first time in its existence, Wikipedia was briefly blocked for refusing to remove allegedly pedophilic images from its encyclopedia.

The last case is the thorniest, largely because the image in question -- which appears on the cover of The Scorpions' 1976 opus, "Virgin Killer" -- really is something that could get you arrested if found, say, on your laptop as you passed through US Customs.

A UK group called the Internet Watch Foundation received a complaint about the "Virgin Killer" wiki entry and added that page to its anti-child-porn blacklist, used by the vast majority of British ISPs. That caused large swaths of Wikipedia to be inaccessible across the pond; the IWF's blacklist also blocked access to parts of Flickr and, yes, Ning (though apparently not the dirty bits).

Wikimedia Foundation, parent organization for Wikipedia, refused to remove the controversial image because no legal authority had ordered them to, the image had been in the public eye for more than 40 years, and was available elsewhere on sites like Amazon.

The IWF eventually backed down. The group's well-meaning but poorly thought-out blacklist probably ended up driving far more traffic to that photo than if it had simply done nothing. So score one for the fans of unfettered free speech.

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Robert X. Cringely

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