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Many people who know about technology decry censorware.
They do so from two angles. First, they claim that censorware is a prior restraint on free speech.
Second, censorware opponents claim that the software is ineffective and hinders the communications that it is meant to let by.
While this second criticism is valid, the first is not.
Corporations, schools, prisons and other institutions have legitimate reasons for restricting certain types of speech.
In fact, the lack of a unified social push towards responsible censorware leads to its current technological shortcomings. Current censorware technologies, be they text-limiters, site blockers, or image filters, can be subverted.
The more the technology fails, the more ammunition its opponents get.
I'd like to propose a change in perspective for this debate.
Right now, the debate focuses on a stark contrast: the absolute freedom online proposed by many geeks, and the absolute control of online media proposed by many right wing conservatives.
But what about relative freedom?
Think of all of the places where the Internet cannot penetrate due to the inability of authorities to effectively restrict it. Most of the time, these authorities ban Internet use completely. In Arizona's correctional system, inmates are even restricted from using a third party email forwarding service to access the Net.
Surely there is a better way than this. With effective censorware, we can raise the level of trust authorities feel with computers, and deliver some useful services, at least, to the people who need them most - the folks under the thumb of authorities.
In the United States, our laws sound absolute but they really aren't. In the 1940s in a case called Korematsu the Supreme Court ruled that the US has the right to intern Japanese ancestry people based on their skin color, a clear violation of the 14th amendment, due to a clear and present danger seen by the US military. Freedoms are a matter of reform- of making it possible to allay fears held by authorities. In the case of Internet access for prisoners, the California 1st Appellate Court says, We conclude that given the unique characteristics of email, the ban on receipt by regular mail of Internet-generated material was neither arbitrary nor irrational and was logically related to the prison's legitimate security concerns.
If you are a revolutionary, like I am, you may believe that the lack of an absolute freedom of speech is just grounds to overthrow the government. However, without overthrowing the government, we can improve the conditions of prisoners, students and others who would benefit from the Net.
This is called, in contrast to revolution, "reformism," aka "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" and "painting the jail walls." This is not to denigrate it- there are real reasons to do these things.
Many prisons have abandoned education for prisoners in an era of budget hawks and stentorian harshness towards the criminal, instead of a pro-rehabilitation attitude. Teachers have refused drug testing and content restrictions by the prisons, and most prisoners tend to leave incarceration with new criminal skills, not new social skills. But the Internet could reestablish distance learning and other education for inmates without violating prison rules or security.
Corrections manager F. Warren Benton described a case where computers were used in a prison and prisoners established a pedophiliac pornography ring. This incident was a primary reason for the discontinuation of many Internet programs in prison, and the passing of laws such as the Arizona statute linked above. But Benton does not abandon computer technology in corrections. He describes some potential applications for a secure prisoners' computer network:
Systems for Prisoner Access: The Benefits, Risks, and Tools
There are clear benefits to prisoner access to well-designed computer systems. The benefits occur when they save correctional labor, expedite the transmission of information, and improve the scheduling and logistical management of correctional operations. The following are some examples of ways that computing and telecommunications will transform correctional operations. While the thinking is advanced, Benton's naivete about security measures on the Internet should be a clarion call to geeks everywhere to develop better censorware and security so prisoners and students can get the benefits that Benton realizes the Internet can provide.
•Prisoner E-mail to Staff: Today, prisoners usually communicate with staff directly or via "kites" which are written notes. Face-to-face communication is great if the staff member is available and if the staff member can solve the problem raised. Otherwise, the message does not occur, or the staff member is involved carrying a message from the prisoner to the staff member responsible to solve the problem. If kites are used, these paper messages have to be sorted, delivered, processed,and responded to. An e-mail system would provide for rapid communication, with precise accountability as to when a message was sent and what was said. A structured system (such as a health care request message or prisoner complaint message that uses a computer-screen form) permits inquiry of the prisoner as the initial message is created, improving the chances that staff receiving the message can respond effectively.
•Prisoner E-mail to Family and Lawyer: Prisoner e-mail could be set up as a closed system that only reaches staff for official communications. Alternatively, it could be set up to permit external e-mail to an approved list of individuals. In this way, it would work like telephone systems that permit collect calls to an approved list for each prisoner. Since prisoners can write letters to practically anyone, adding e-mail on a structured basis would not increase the range of people who could be contacted. However, e-mail is more accountable than written mail, because the source and destination of messages can be documented, and messages can be stored for later retrieval. The legal aspects of procedures for storage and later retrieval will have to be confronted, but there is probably an acceptable policy somewhere between "It's a privilege - don't use it if you don't like the policy," to "We'll only retrieve messages from archive if there is probable cause of a crime."
•Network Computers: Network computers can come in many versions, but the general idea is to simplify the computer at the desktop or work station, relying more on central network computers called servers. The network computer can be simpler, cheaper, more reliable, and more controlled. A correctional officer's desktop computer might have no disk drives, always relying on software from the network server. A computer intended to provide nformation to prisoners might not even have a keyboard, relying on a touch screen or a number pad as the means for prisoner identification.
•Security Devices: Today many security systems rely on computers and computer networks, for functions such as monitoring and communicating alarm, lock, and monitoring devices. Future devices, such as inexpensive and small network-based video cameras, can be new components of security systems. Instead of having a video camera wired into a video network, the camera functions as a part of a computer network, sending a picture over the network whenever requested. The picture could be initiated by a movement or sound sensor, a button requesting the opening of a gate or door, or by a person or computer program from another point in the network.
Manage Risks By Planning Systems with Security All computer systems should be planned, designed, and monitored with security in mind. There are several basic strategies involved, focusing on user identification, network firewalls, and application security.
User Identification: A computer system should be designed to assure who is using the system. Traditionally, usernames and passwords have been the primary tools for user identification. New techniques involve smart identification cards, physiological means of identification such as voiceprints, eye scanners, or fingerprint and handprint scanners.
Firewalls: A firewall is a barrier, developed with equipment or with software, that limits access into or out of a computer network. A simple firewall can be created with space -- not connecting computers to other computers and systems that should not interact. This strategy can be defeated, however, by motivated users with diskettes. Sophisticated firewalls are combinations of software and hardware that limit the movement of information across networks by monitoring the information exchanged and by limiting the ways that it can move.
Application Security: A secure application reinforces user identification and network firewalls, but also limits the ability of the user to "hack" the application itself by modifying how it works.
Those who say that "information wants to be free" are really anarchists. They would oppose the social interests that want to restrict information and access to information. I heartily support them and wish them luck! Meanwhile, though, we should work on improving the security and censorship technologies available.