Techwit: Beware eternal darnation

Posted: Monday, September 09, 2002

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Heck is for people who don't believe in gosh.

That's how conservative groups were forced to re-word their evangelical enthusiasm online to escape cyber censors patrolling the Internet for offensive material. The irony is that censorship was their idea in the first place. Poetic justice, I believe it's called.

The whole mess started when the federal government created the Children's Internet Protection Act (currently under serious legal challenge) to keep kids from seeing mind-corrupting information on the World Wide Web that would unravel their moral fiber. Conservative forces rejoiced and supported development of Internet "blocking" software that prevented you from looking at Web sites if it found the presence of an offensive word (like "freedom") or two suspicious words near to each other (like "Lewinski" and "cigar"). If what you were looking for was really nasty, the software would turn off your computer and dial 911. But usually your screen would just display a message like, "Your parents are always right," or "Jesse Helms is the Messiah."

The problems were obvious from the get-go. A site discussing the sex habits of marsupials was blocked not just because of the word "sex" but also because "marsupial" had too many syllables. A sports writer who was trying to out-maneuver blocking software changed the headline, "Tiger Woods teed off at the first hole," to "Large feline pro-development interests perturbed at the first opening." The word "Tiger" was banned because of its frequent use in smut, "Woods" was too environmentalist; "teed off" was an undignified way of saying perturbed, and the word "hole" made most right-thinking people swoon.

The groups who supported Internet blocking software suddenly found themselves under assault by their own creation. They tried adjusting by using phrases like "eternal darnation" and "heckfire and brimstone," but failed to inspire the faithful. Before you knew it, whenever you logged on to the Internet your computer would say, "What the heck do you think you're doing?"

Clearly, Internet blocking companies needed a new approach. So they tried actually visiting each of the gazillions of Web sites (that change every day) to figure out which were offensive. One company enlisted the aid of legions of elderly church ladies of impeccable virtue but who had bad typing skills. It was very slow going. At the end of the first week all they had managed to find were horrific misuses of the English language, mostly by politicians. But in the church ladies' defense, they never had a chance. The really smart Web masters knew when censors were poking around and simply changed words like "pornography" to "paleontology" until they left.

And then, as with all great moral crusades, the sound of ka-ching changed everything. Realizing the impossibility of pleasing everyone who had an issue with someone else's right to free speech, software companies started creating truly useful programs they knew parents would pay dearly for. Like "Toy Ad blocking." It's supposed to be ready in time for the Christmas shopping season. Like Nutritious SPAM. It sends official looking mail messages to kids like, "Scientists prove that body piercing causes permanent acne," and "The government promises to give a free car to teenagers when they're 18 if they don't listen to Eminem." What's a little white lie when we're talking about saving the soul of a child?

Where will it all go? Who knows. But if you feel strongly about free speech, then do what I do: don't take any doodoo from anyone and if necessary don't hesitate to give any self-righteous censor a swift kick in the donkey.

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at jason@jasonohler.com. © 2002 Jason Ohler.



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