From Russia with Deja Vu About American Child Protection and Censorship

This post appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on February 13, 2012

by Larry Magid

I’m writing from Moscow, where I spoke at Russia’s Safer Internet Day conference last week. Safer Internet Day, which originated in Europe, is celebrated in much of the world, though there are relatively few events in the United States.

While most recent American Internet safety conferences focus on digital citizenship issues such as preventing cyberbullying, most speakers at the Russian event talked about protecting children from undesirable content. There was, however, one panel on digital literacy where my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier talked about strategies for helping kids learn to treat each other respectfully and to protect their online reputations.

Russia is behind the United States and much of Europe in Internet usage, but it’s growing quickly. In 2009, the World Bank reported Internet penetration in the Russian Federation at 42 percent but the growth curve is impressive. In 2006, it was only 18 percent. One speaker at the conference said it’s now over 50 percent, with even higher usage among youth.

Still, the Internet is new to many people in this former Soviet capitol and it’s common to be afraid of things that are unfamiliar. So my main role as a speaker was to try to put some of the safety concerns into perspective.

I reminded delegates that there was a time when people bought short-term life insurance before they got on an airplane. Those passengers were probably less worried about their car crashing on the way to the airport, even though then, as now, driving was more dangerous than flying.

It’s a bit like that with technology. Bullying, pornography and child molestation have been around forever. But because widespread Internet use is new here, I heard politicians and others worrying aloud about the increased danger of the Net, even though American and European data show that most risks to kids are actually lower online than in the “real world,” and that sexual crimes against children have actually decreased by 58 percent between 1992 and 2008, the very years that huge numbers of U.S. kids got online. I’m not saying the Internet is the reason for the decline, but it certainly didn’t usher in any increase, as some feared it would.

One reason it’s important to put the fears into perspective is because there are lots of people in Russia, and in the United States as well, who want to put limits on Internet content in the name of protecting children. In fact, there is a law on the books in Russia that’s supposed to take effect in September that would require websites to classify themselves by age ratings so Internet service providers could block kids from content that would harm their “health and development.”

It’s not clear even to Internet professionals I spoke with here how this law is supposed to be implemented and whether it will apply just to Russian-based sites, or if ISPs will be required to filter out access to international sites that aren’t rated. One of the criteria bans kids’ access to images of sexual relations between people of the opposite sex. Apparently, the drafters forgot to include images of people of the same sex.

There were also people at the conference proposing that ISPs should be required to block access to certain types of illegal content. If this sounds familiar, think back just a couple of weeks ago to our debate around a pair of U.S. bills that would have done just that for sites with alleged pirated content.

Illegal content would, of course, include child pornography, even though images of children being abused already are illegal in Russia. But it could also include sites that advocate the use of drugs or alcohol, gambling sites and sites that advocate “extremism.” That last category is particularly bothersome to one political activist I spoke with who worries it could be used to block sites that advocate demonstrations against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or some future regime.

Other countries do ban some extremist content. France and Germany, have laws that prohibit the display of Nazi memorabilia or advocacy of anti-Semitism. Depicting a swastika on an American website may be offensive to most of us, but it’s not illegal.

As I listened to simultaneous translation of the debates, I was reminded of the battles we’ve had in the United States over the past 15 years or so. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which would have made it a crime for anyone to post content that kids could access that was “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.”

That was mostly overturned by the Supreme Court, and a somewhat less restrictive follow-up attempt, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, was overturned by a federal circuit court. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, which effectively killed that bill as well. We do have a law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, that requires schools and libraries that receive certain federal funding to use filters and other measures to protect children from inappropriate content. But that doesn’t prevent the posting of the content and only applies to federally subsidized schools and libraries.

One speaker at the conference suggested that sites that promote homosexuality should be blocked, but there is no such provision in the current law and this opinion was not widely shared by others I spoke with. Still, it illustrates how censorship can include value judgments that are not necessarily shared by all members of a society.

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