The bossy babysitter

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
27 December, 2016
Editorial: 59
Fecha de publicación original: 18 febrero, 1997

Date of publication: 18/02/1997. Editorial 59.

If you don’t keep on your toes, you’ll get hit

When Clinton whipped out his digital pen to sign the Internet censorship law, in February last year, the movement in favour of freedom of expression in the Net responded to the Administration’s spirit of vigilance by arguing in favour of private control. Parents, teachers, tutors, or adults who worked with minors should have the responsibility for educating them in what they should or should not look at in the Net. Faced with the impossible task of 24 hour vigilance, the next constraining step was technological: computer programmes capable of censoring access to certain places on the Internet because of their violent, explicitly sexual, racist, or whatever, content. These “digital babysitters”, with such familiar names such as Cybernanny or Cybersitter, brought the job of censorship back in to the home environment from which it should never have gone in the first place.

But, just how private is the privacy of the home in this case? This is the Internet we are talking about here, not a house contained by walls, windows and doors. Exactly who is it that is playing adult and deciding the rules of the game? One imagined parents or teachers programming the digital babysitter to prevent access to pages which offend the moral code of the adult in question, who, with the generous gesture typical of all censors, will save children or pupils from the horrors of, for example, seeing naked men or women in one of the classic manifestations of perverted human minds — and bodies (or lots of even worse things, if what we read in the papers is anything to go by). This is what was called giving moral responsibility back to adults in the education process, thereby avoiding State interference with what we should watch, read or do in the peace of our own homes.

What a mistake! A very big mistake! For the adults here are other people. The adults are, in fact, the owners of the companies that make and sell the digital babysitters. They are the ones deciding what can and cannot be seen by an internaut. Let’s take one example, Cybersitter. This excellent product made by Solid Oak Software (Santa Barbara, California), already used by a million people, keeps a list of the web pages and discussion groups to which minors are denied access. The label in almost all cases is “Pornography” (a little fanfare here, please). However, a young man from the Vanderbilt University, Bennett Haselton, has discovered that bottled under the same label go the webs of the National Organisation for Women and gay groups. When he asked why these places were censored, the response from Solid Oak, living up to their name, was: those people publish material of an undoubtedly sexual nature.

Haselton denied any such extreme and published his criticism in one of a number of webs against censorship in the US, Peacefire. Oak’s response was even more solid: it included this site in its list of cyberspace’s forbidden corners. The battle between them is, in addition, developing in a manner typical of “Infowars”: young people are attacking these digital babysitters and are opening up their hidden pockets in order to decipher their genetic codes and reveal tricks for sidestepping their vigilance.

Nevertheless, this clash casts a shadow over the idea of what constitutes public and private in a place like the Internet. One might ask the question “Who is behind Solid Oak?” Perhaps, in this case, it is just a company committed to doing its job and overstepping the mark when it comes to putting it into practice. Or maybe not. Perhaps this business with its first class technology is operating as a front to fulfil the objectives of pressure or interest groups that the public has no knowledge of. The power of these groups is phenomenal and could be even greater. A million copies of a programme which censors what minors can see is a golden opportunity for indoctrination by omission, enough to make all moral and ideological majorities and minorities whose intention is to inculcate us with the “correct” doctrines, drool.

Moral: Before switching on your computer, check who is behind the babysitter you trust your kids to.

Translation: Bridget King.