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As most Internet surfers know, a search for innocuous information often yields a host of unsolicited porn, violence and/or gambling sites. Besides the indisputable harm these pose for impressionable juvenile minds, they also offend many adults who do not wish to be confronted by what they consider highly disagreeable and objectionable material.
Far from public attention, a major battle on just this issue is being fiercely waged in the Knesset. A Shas-sponsored bill obliging Internet service providers to block offensive sites, except to adults who request access, has elicited strong opposition - particularly from Internet service providers, and to a lesser extent, chiefly on technical grounds, from the Justice Ministry.
The bill, which has already passed a preliminary reading, would restrict access to certain sites to adults who prove their age and identify themselves, either by biometric means or via passwords. Prior to the second and third readings, the bill is being hotly debated in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, and the Justice Ministry might submit it to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation for further review.
At this point there are numerous technical kinks to iron out - everything from identification modes and their feasibility, to economic implications, to such basics as who will determine which sites are to be restricted. The bill plainly requires reworking to withstand High Court challenges. This is the crux of the Justice Ministry's unease.
Internet service providers argue that, for a small fee, parents can already block various Internet offerings. This, however, isn't as simple as it sounds because it requires subscriber initiative. Not everyone is adept at installing and monitoring the necessary blocking programs, which are not, in any case, totally effective.
These points are among those expounded by Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, chairman of the independent National Council for the Child, who supports the Shas bill and has stressed to MKs that "parents cannot be relied upon to read, understand or act on whatever informative and instructional material Internet providers might send them."
Indeed, youngsters frequently are far more computer-savvy than their elders.
The Internet providers are also promising to introduce unspecified voluntary self-regulation within months. They warn that requiring gambling and porn aficionados to identify themselves might engender anxiety regarding blacklists and infringement of rights to privacy and freedom of expression. The bill's opponents - led by the service providers - charge that its adoption would place Israel in a dishonorable club along with Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.
Yet this is hardly a concern unique to tyrannies. There have been attempts (unsuccessful so far) in the United States to remove porn from the Internet. And last fall, effective legislation passed in the US to crack down hard on Internet gambling - mainly by prohibiting American banks and credit card firms from processing payments to on-line gambling businesses outside the country.
This cost foreign Internet gambling concerns 80% of their business. American law has long banned interstate gambling, which already meant a ban on such operations by American Internet entrepreneurs.
Nevertheless, this has been decried in the US as a conservative cause, leading to a current attempt by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), with the support of some fellow liberals, to overturn the act.
But should proposals to curtail Internet gambling and sleaze be rejected because of political or religious associations? Should the goal of removing harmful Internet influences not also be championed by secular liberals?
Overexposure to on-line filth has by all accounts made societies more sadistic and brutal. And there is a danger that cyberspace's worst polluters wish to shelter behind cries for freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not an absolute, and is rightly superseded by laws against incitement, slander etc.
In this case, legislation can address the problem without impairing basic rights, finding the path by which access to excessive violence, porn or gambling is made less easy, though not impossible, for law abiding citizens.
A cause cannot merely be judged by who upholds it. The fact that Shas is sponsoring the sort of bill that should have long since been considered must not be allowed to detract from its legitimacy or its urgency.
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