Policing the 'Net

The question of whether the government should control or censor what appears on the Internet or World Wide Web (two different things, incidentally), is a question that is somewhat of a “hot button” issue for many Internet and Web users. Even those who are unfamiliar with the Web and the Internet probably have an opinion. That there are a million websites on millions of topics—and more being added daily—is not a secret. What concerns some people is what is being distributed over the phone lines, cable lines, satellites, and other methods: pornography of all types, terrorist information (such as how to make bombs), scams, spam, and shysters spreading lies and misinformation. At the same time, there are those making an honest living using the Internet, those distributing real information and research materials, those who use the Internet for communications, those who use the Web for hobbies… the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, there are no statistics on the percentage of “good” web content versus “bad” web content, so it is impossible to know the ratio. But what is the use in having any “bad” content? Why not regulate what is allowed on the Internet, what is allowed for public consumption? What is at stake is should the government be able to take what is, essentially, an open forum for the world in this era of free speech and regulate it, basically telling Internet users, Web users, and website designers what is “palatable” and what is not. Disregarding the issue of free speech for moment, this kind of legislation would require a number of things, all costly both in time and money.

First, the government would have to assign a special section of the government to preside over what is currently on the Internet; they would likely call this something like, “The Department of Information Superhighway Regulations, or DISR, for short. Since the web is growing at the rate of “1.5 million new pages added every day” (Malik), there would have to be a subsection of the DISR devoted to approving or rejecting new websites as they are formed. Between these two sections, in all likelihood, the government would have to hire between 30,000 and 100,000 people just to look at websites and approve, reject, or remove them. Suppose that each person was only making minimum wage (in my state, Idaho, that is $5.15 per hour), that would be a cost yearly of $321,360,000 to $1,071,200,000. Not exactly an inexpensive fix to what some would say is not even a problem. In addition to payroll costs, there would also be benefit costs (unless, because these workers are only making minimum wage, no benefits would be offered), overtime costs (unless legislation currently in Congress goes through, in which case, that would, also, be a moot point), the cost of a facility for the DISR, the cost of computers, the cost of high-speed Internet connections (with dial-up, it would take too long to scour the ‘Net), and, of course, supervisors, who would, of course, make more money than the regular employees, have benefits, etc. Some conservative estimates put the amount of material on the Internet, WWW, Intranets, and others at “over 60 million pages” (Internet Newsroom). At that amount—even if there were no new pages ever added—if all 100,000 workers could go over 5 websites an hour for 8 hours a day, it would still take almost 50 years to go over it all. But, don't forget, there are almost two million new documents added every day.

I think that, if the government began to consider such measures, we would have to take a step back, look at the issue long and hard, and decide if the act of legislating morality and personal choices—as well as the issue of free speech and press—in addition to the actual financial costs of regulating the Internet is really worth the cost. The World Wide Web, the Internet, Intranets, and various networks are so much larger by themselves—not even the combined total of all these different kinds of sites and documents—than all the other medias—television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the telephone system—that just monitoring it would be a Herculean task. In addition, we would have to decide “on whose value system will we begin our censorship?” Will it be religious values? No, that would go against the separation of church and state. Will it be academic values? Well, that might be swell, but what about all of the religious documents that are protected under free speech and press? Maybe we should go with a societal model… but whose? A cultural model? Again, whose? It would be impossible to please all the different factions involved and still be legal by our own country's laws and constitution.

The fact of the matter is, censorship is wrong; that is why our forefathers founded this nation with the tenets of free speech and press. In the lands that we came from, saying what was on your mind might get you thrown in jail or executed, as would writing down your sentiments and distributing them. The Internet is the ultimate symbolism of free speech and press in an environment that allows everyone of every background and of every creed, the venue to have his or her thoughts heard and/or read. It allows for communication of all sorts and encourages the sharing of ideas and knowledge. Yes, there are some “bad” documents on the Internet… but by whose standards are they “bad?” By some people's estimates, there are “bad” books (Harry Potter, anybody?), too; most people think that burning or otherwise destroying books is a bad thing. In short, there is no reason why anyone—even the government—should regulate or control Internet content.

“Getting BeGoogled.” Internet Newsroom. 1999. 15 Apr. 2004. <http://www.editors-service.com/articlearchive/google99.html>.

Malik, Om. “How Google is That?” Forbes.com . 4 Oct. 1999. 15 Apr. 2004. <http://www.forbes.com/1999/10/04/feat.html>.