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January 4-10, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Censorship for Dummies


By Annalee Newitz

GIVEN ALL the bad porn on the Internet, I guess it's only fair that there should be some truly terrible ideas about stopping porn on the Internet, too. The latest comes from a group called CP80 (www.cp80.com), which sadly isn't a phalanx of uptight androids who enjoy mysteriously homoerotic relationships with mailbox-shaped companions.

Instead, it is the "Internet Channel Initiative," an organization with a mysterious relationship to Third Way, a lobbying group that's trying to make the Democratic Party popular in red states. Apparently, Third Way is trying to accomplish this with technology initiatives that will stamp out Internet free speech. CP80's website should be subtitled "Conservative Wonks Gone Wild." Dozens of pictures of kids—many of whom have bare shoulders, as if they were shirtless or naked outside the frame—adorn naive blurts of text about how we can redesign the Internet as a series of "channels," just like cable television.

That way, you can put all the porn on one "channel" and ask your ISP to block it. Easy as punch, right? Next, we'll turn our mobile phones into microwave ovens! Cell phones broadcast in the microwave spectrum, so all you have to do is turn the volume up really high! Whenever I find a website full of entertaining politico-technical babble, I know exactly what to do: Check out the FAQs for further hilarity.

There I discovered that CP80's plan involves turning computer ports into TV channels. Ports are software-created entryways to your computer that are used for different types of communication, such as HTTP (the web protocol on port 80) and SMTP (the email protocol on port 25). Basically, CP80 wants to redefine one of the building blocks of Internet communication. Instead of using ports to distinguish different types of information-transfer protocols, they would use them to distinguish different types of content. There are several technical problems with this approach, but CP80 barely hits those before running up against a fundamental policy problem. In the "technical" FAQ, some CP80 wonk on crack wrote, "Adult content will be required to be on a specific port (i.e., 1101). Providers of content will be required to publish the Adult content on this specific port. They may still maintain their presence on port 80 as long as they do not cross into adult content (this line to be made up by who??? The Government?)."

I just love it when gems like that somehow make it into print. These censors are so unsure of how anyone can tell the difference between adult and nonadult content that they actually use comic-book punctuation (three question marks???) to poke holes in their own theories.

Even better, this FAQ is accompanied by a kind of public-service Flash movie (www.cp80.org/solutions/CP80-Flash-Overview.html) about how porn creeps into our homes. "The free and open nature of the Internet is becoming a problem," a smooth female voice informs us as the film begins. Then we see a marvelously campy cartoon where a red tide of porno seeps into a sea of innocent blue computers. The thing is so laughably bad that it actually got passed around various blogs as a parody until somebody figured out that it wasn't.

But here's the kicker. CP80 isn't just a bunch of right-wing college students who read Blogging for Dummies and threw up a website. It's sponsored by dozens of corporations, including Amazon, Apple, Sony, Nokia, Disney, Wal-Mart and Hickory Farms. And it has real political clout. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) sits on the board of Third Way—she recently sponsored a bill in the Senate that would have resulted in a 25 percent "porn tax" on Internet pornography. With backing like this, it's not likely that we can just dismiss CP80 with jokes, although that's tempting.

We need to remind this group and others like it that you can't solve problems with content by re-architecting the Internet. Turning ports into channels will cost us—first by making ISPs and web software designers start blocking Internet traffic as well as routing it, and second by placing a burden on people whose erotic expression is legal. Since most firewalls and browsers block all but a few ports, putting porn on some random port like 12045 means that most people's computers will be configured by default to block all speech classified as "adult." Even if ISPs route information on that port, home computers won't allow it in. Using technology to enforce social policy is always a losing proposition—especially when the social policies are so contested that no communication network, no matter how fungible, could ever be configured to support them.


Annalee Newitz (openport@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd.

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