Albion Monitor

Recently I discovered the true meaning of obscenity. At risk of giving away my conclusions, I'll reveal that my little epiphany involved: A) the Internet, B) censorship, and C) the regional newspaper that Northern California loves to hate -- the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Events began when I was honored to have a pair of houseguests, Indonesian journalists Andreas Harsono and Ahmad Taufik. On assignment for the Thai daily newspaper, Nation, Andreas had just finished reporting on the economic summit in Vancouver. (In the last issue of the Monitor, you can read his report on the Indonesia regime's outrageous threat to protesters in Canada during the summit.)

Andreas also acted as guide and interpreter for Taufik, who was making his first trip to America. Quiet because of his limited english skills, Taufik makes a warm impression because of his easy-going demeanor. You'd never guess that this smiling fellow had just spent almost two years in a remote West Java prison, where he was tortured repeatedly.

On their last night in Northern California, a dinner was given in their honor. Although it was an impromptu affair, guests came from hours away. Even more impressive, some drove through monsoon-like rains or blanket fog; they were expatriates starved for news from home.

As you can read in Andreas' recent Monitor story, Indonesia faces grave times, and it would not be exaggerating to say that the nation teeters on mass panic. The economy has collapsed. Rumors fly that dictator Suharto is dead or dying, and everyone fears (expects) that the military will again muscle into the power vacuum.

These current events cast a wartime pall over the dinner party. One guest departed with the promise they'd all meet again in Jakarta... someday. It was the kind of melancholy wish that people make when their homeland is occupied by enemy troops.

Indonesia is clearly a dangerous place, now, and I feared for my friend's safety. After a trip to New York -- where Taufik received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists -- they returned home. Back to a nation where last transfer of power left more than a million dead.

It's easy to forget the perils many reporters face; besides imprisonment and routine beatings, at least 19 journalists were killed this year. Besides being jailed and tortured, Taufik was interrogated with a soldier's pistol jammed against his skull.

Thinking about Taufik and Harsono's courage left me inspired. But it wasn't until I opened the newspapers the next morning that I became angry.

Headlined on December 1 was a Washington Post story: That America Online, Disney, and other companies plan to fight "indecent" material on the Internet. AOL will aggressively push parential-control software that blocks certain websites, and Disney will produce a search program that finds only "approved" materials.

These were all voluntary actions, explained the Post article, by an industry trying to stave off federal regulation. The objective was to protect children from "adult-oriented material," particularly child pornography. The Post also added that companies (unnamed) will also "work closer with law enforcement in tracking pedophiles online."

It'd seem tricky to write an article about censorship without once using the word "censorship," but Post technology reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran seems to have done it. But then again, maybe he ran out of space after trying to shoehorn in all those loaded references to sex and pornography.

I wasn't mad because the author neglected to mention that censorship was really the pivotal issue, however; it was still a reasonably balanced story -- at least, when it was printed without additional editorial censorship. (More about that in a minute.)

It bothered me that most of the "news" in the article was merely transparent corporate PR. America Online was only offering a service that's been available for a couple of years via commerical software. And Disney's vague press release promises only that the company will soon index "thousands" of Internet sites that are approved by them. (Say, I wonder if they'll include Norman Solomon's column on Disney's use of sweatshop labor in Haiti? Or "Operation Rescue" criticism of Disney for offering health benefits to same-sex partners?)

But what really shocked was déjà vu; Internet censorship was a dinosaur I thought was extinct.

As we reported in several 1995 articles, U.S. politicians were itching to censor the Internet via the "Communications Decency Act" (CDA). While it was a silly law -- written by politicians who had probably never touched a computer, much less surfed the 'net -- it passed, only to be dumped by the Supreme Court last summer. (Visit the EPIC website for the best resource page on CDA history.)

It was absurd, of course; the Internet is a global resource, not restricted to the United States. But the Christian Right loved the CDA, and even tried to make it harsher. In a Monitor exclusive, we also documented how they tried to outlaw any mention of abortion services as "obscenity." Now, having failed to legally inflict 16th century Calvinism on cyberspace, conservatives have changed tactics.

The latest attempt is to demand that every company or individual with a web page comply with some sort of online ratings guideline. One labyrinth system has 9 subdivisions for profanity alone, ranging from "subtle innuendo" to "explicit and crude." Make sure you label your website correctly, though; the same proposal makes failure to label or mislabeling a criminal offense. Web site owners could be sued if little Johnny stumbles across an unrated page:

Publishers may be sued in civil court by any parent who feels their children were harmed by the data negligently published. The parents shall be given presumption in all cases and do not have to prove that the content actually produced harm to their child, only that the material was severe enough to reasonably be considered to have needed a rating label...
There are powerful moral reasons to fight any ratings system. We published a commentary last April from the author of a Holocaust site whose presentation is both disturbing and important. But with its graphic description of Nazi horrors, it would also be classified as obscene. Even the Monitor article about that site would qualify, raising another question; what should we do with articles containing obscenity? Naughty words appear in our coverage of both Bear Lincoln and Judi Bari cases -- usually in direct quotes from law enforcement.

I'm sad to say that so-called "filters" that supposedly give parents options of controlling access to the Internet appear equally flawed. Some watch for dirty words, blocking any sites with offensive text. This approach has been mostly abandoned, however; there were several embarassing snafus in 1996, such as the time that the White House web site was blocked. (Warning: the nasty word was couple -- as in, married couple Al and Tipper Gore.)

Instead of scanning for words, most companies offering filter software provide lists of offensive sites. Among the foggy criteria used by some of these programs:

  • bad language
  • tastelessness
  • activities of a dubious nature which may be illegal in any or all jurisdictions
  • satanic material
  • sex education
Pretty wide categories, but that's the kind of legroom that censors like. Thus information about abortion becomes verboten because it's "sex education;" and as shown in a current Monitor article, also off-limits as sex-ed are sites designed to help gay teens.

I strongly urge you to visit The Censorware Project for more info on these complex topics. Using the example of a single filter program, they document how hundreds of thousands of Internet pages are insanely blocked. I also encourage you to examine the web page of one filter advocate with a list of "Anti-Filter Sites." The author's sneering commentary on groups like the ACLU and American Library Association is revealing.

Growing angry, too? Wait -- there's more. All of this discussion about Internet censorship is only groundwork to explain why I was so upset by the newspapers on December 1.

First I scanned the reprint of the Washington Post reprint that appeared in the S.F. Chronicle. After another cup of coffee -- which certainly didn't help my bile to settle -- I read the same story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. And I found a significant portion of the article was missing.

Chopped out in the Press Democrat was almost everything critical of filter programs or embarassing to their advocates. Readers of the regional New York Times-owned paper probably thought web censorship (oops -- didn't use that word) was a swell idea, and certain to stop those horrible, horrible, child pornographers and pedophiles.

What was missing? P-D subscribers didn't read, for example, a loopy quote from anti-porn spokesperson Donna Rice Hughes: "If a kid can't go out and buy a Penthouse magazine in the store, why should he be able to get it online?"

Um, well, that's not true. Visit the Penthouse site and a kid won't get far without a credit card. I'll submit that any child that has his own credit card can buy lots more lurid stuff than a low-resolution web page photograph. (It also begs the question that she might be an adolescent that wants material that she can't feel comfortable purchasing in her community, thanks to purient religious groups.)

But most importantly, the Press Democrat deleted three paragraphs about EPIC, following a vague comment that the organization opposes filters because they block "a great deal of information."

Here's what the Press Democrat censored:

The privacy group [EPIC] recently conducted 100 searches for information on the Internet using both a standard search tool and one with a filter called the Net Shepherd Family Search. When the privacy group conducted searches for common phrases such as "American Red Cross," "Bill of Rights," and "Smithsonian Institution," the filtered search engine blocked access to almost 90 percent of the Internet sites that mentioned the phrases, the researchers said.

"In protecting children against that small percentage of harmful material that may be out there, we are denying them accdess to the vast majority of useful and educational material," said David Sobel, a lawyer at the privacy center.

Industry executives defend use of the software at home, saying that parents generally would rather limit their children to a small but safe list of Web sites than a large one with the possibility of unseemly material. "It's possible to have a restrictive but rich experience," Disney's [online division president Jake] Winebaum said.

Editing out that section is a significant change to the article. Placed as it was -- at the "tin man's knee" (ignore: it's journalist slang) -- no professional editor would delete it completely. Articles are trimmed at the tail, or sections are condensed. You don't simply hack out parts you disagree with or paragraphs containing embarassing quotes.

It's the worst kind of censorship: Readers don't even suspect that information's missing.

Normally I wouldn't have been so angered by these topics. Internet rating schemes and filters are more annoyances than true threats to free speech, and both systems will surely fail.

And though the Press Democrat's editing of that story is an outrageous example of bias, other incidents have been far worse. Many worried that their irresponsible coverage of the Bear Lincoln trial placed the man's life at risk once he was found innocent, and as I documented in another editorial, they blocked all news about the Columbia hospital scandal until it became one of the year's top stories.

My emotions flared because I thought about those Indonesian expatriates who had traveled through the worst storm of the season just to hear uncensored news. Some, I knew, had 'net access. Would they use filtering software? Coming from a nation where a dictatorship controls the press, would they give some faceless employee at a software company the power to determine what information's declared "offensive?" I don't think so.

How rich the irony: In America, we argue only about how to best censor ourselves.

I was also disturbed by the importance given the Internet article. Although Indonesia and most of Asia is staggering under economic collapse, a non-story about sex and an undistinguished U.S. computer conference makes the headlines.

How absurd our sense of priorities: Should Indonesian soldiers begin another genocide like the "Year of Living Dangerously," I'm sure our newspapers will keep us up-to-date on Hollywood gossip.

I thought also of the problems Taufik and Andreas face as Indonesian journalists. "What's your opinion of an editor who completely removes all dissenting views?" I imagined asking Taufik. Easily I can hear him laugh: "In my country, it happens all the time."

How fortunate we are in Sonoma County: We have a regional newspaper that meets Indonesia's high standards of excellence.

-- Jeff Elliott,
Editor, Albion Monitor
December 30, 1997

Albion Monitor issue 40 (

All Rights Reserved.

Front Page