Thursday, June 09, 2005

ACLU to challenge Utah porn-blocking law

What absolute nonsense. The search related question here is that among others targeted by the law are any companies which effectively organize electronic data for profit:

This bill addresses pornographic materials and material harmful to minors. This bill:

  • requires the Division of Consumer Protection to make public service announcements;
  • requires the attorney general to establish and maintain a database, called the adult content registry, of certain Internet sites containing material harmful to minors;

(...) and later in the document;

  • Upon request by a consumer, a service provider shall filter content to prevent the transmission of material harmful to minors to the consumer.
  • (b) A service provider complies with Subsection (1)(a) if it uses a generally accepted and
    commercially reasonable method of filtering.

(to read the whole transcript of the Bill, please glick on the link to "law" above)

So any search engine which automatically crawls the web is required to prevent minors from seeing objectionable content.

NetCoalition, a lobby group whose members include Google, Yahoo and others, have protested, arguing that the legislation could affect search engines, email providers and Web hosting companies.

They are right. But here's two more points;

  1. To loosely quote a Supreme Court Justice Stewart, whose first name now escapes me, and Sen. Goldwater on the subject of pornography: "I don't know how to define it, but I know what it is when I see it." And;
  2. A picture is worth a thousand words to you and me, but zero to a search engine ( I've been using this since 1998 / 9 - I doubt I'm the first one to have said it!!!!)

Even if search engines and email providers wanted to censor all adult material automatically, they could not. They already can put certain sites on 'adult lists', and you need to turn the search filters off to find that data, but all you need to do is say "I'm not a minor" by clicking a button. What a powerful tool. Imagine if liquor stores used similar filters, "Sure I'm 18 / 19 / 21" (depending on your jurisdiction), says the acne faced kid with a cracking voice and peach fuzz lip...

This Bill is unworkable. If it were upheld, and I were running a search engine, I would consider not allowing access to my engine to residents in that territory. It's simply an untenable economic expense; the cost of enforcing such a Bill would be untenable. The only search providers who could meet these terms correctly would be organizations like DMOZ, and even then, they would have to re-review sites on an almost daily basis, to ensure continued compliance. After all, what spammer would not post a legitimate site today, and then morph the content into porn the day after the site passed inspection?

Lastly, I always love statements like "accepted and commercially reasonable method of filtering." They mean nothing. It's a loophole so large the whole State could walk through it. "Commercially reasonable" - I can see it now. Google gets fined, and challenges the fine in court. They send in their lawyer who simply states "Your honor, to comply with this Bill would require the hiring of 100,000 new staff for a period of 6 months at a total cost of $15,000,000,000, simply to review the existing data already in our index. This staff would be required to re-review such content monthly thereafter,....." What would compliance do to Google's valuation?

I believe a few other States have already tried this type of nonsense, and the law has been thrown out.

I've never liked to see government in the bedrooms of the people. Sad, truly sad.