After World War I, when the doughboys were returning home, we worried ourselves sick about these lads as we sang: “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm–After They’ve Seen Paree?” Yes, we felt, these soldiers must have seen things we didn’t even know existed. I suspect many of their stories stayed with them as in the ritual ‘what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.’ Nevertheless, we were changed because some of us now knew about other worlds, other lives. We at home were changed and we hadn’t even gone anywhere!

Curiosity, it seems, is one of those ancestral deep forces in all of us, continuing to feed our interest in what might be around the next corner. Sometimes our hunter-gatherer efforts reward us with fields of edible berries or get us in trouble as we stumble into a bear’s den. Either way, it only takes the slightest bit of positive reinforcement to keep our fires lit.

Today countries are struggling to put firewalls and filters on their netizens’ connections. OK, I’m taking bets. You in? I’m going to vote that curiosity is going to outwit this one. Sorry dear leaders, the cat’s out of the bag, too many of us know that there’s lots of really cool information and images and rumors and well, fields of edible berries waiting for a simple click of the mouse. Put up the walls if you must, we’ll just find a way around them.

Even back in 1989, as part of the increasing widespread policies of ‘glasnost’, the Soviet Union’s regulation of personal publishing media was finally abandoned as hopelessly difficult in the information age. At the time, U.S. President Ronald Reagan quipped,

“Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire; it wafts across the electrified borders… Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive. The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, is set five centuries from now in an anti-intellectual world where firemen serve the reverse role of setting fires, in this case to books that people have been illegally hoarding and reading. Literature is banned because it might potentially incite people to think or to question the status quo of happiness and freedom from worry through the elimination of controversy. But, like today’s Internet filtering, the books were burned in public so, everyone knew about them. Once again the corrupt elite underestimates the power of curiosity as the populace rebels by each being assigned a book to memorize for posterity. Bradbury’s indignation lives in the character of Granger who imagines:

“And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know, and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole thing over again.”

Here in America, our own Supreme Court has upheld the CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act) requiring the application of filters to Internet access in public and school libraries. No doubt this is the extension of a necessary effort against pornography but Internet filtering today still suffers from two major flaws: bias and absurdity. Bias arises because like all of us, filter providers have their own ideas about what kind of expression is valuable, acceptable, or inoffensive, and what kind of expression, by contrast, is offensive, unacceptable, or ‘harmful to minors.’

For instance, in ‘Access Denied’ a book on Internet filtering practices, Dr. Lynne Sutton reports that some filters block virtually all information about gay and lesbian issues, regardless of whether it has sexual content. Some have broad blocking categories for “alternative lifestyles,” “cults,” or “sex education.” Of course, what qualifies as an acceptable mainstream religion, and what merits ‘cult’ status involves highly subjective judgments by whomever is controlling the filters. Not surprisingly, Sutton has found, one of the most frequently and deliberately blocked categories has been criticism of filtering software. Hey kids, let’s burn those books!

The absurdity of filtering is shown in examples illustrating how cyber-sitter, artificial intelligence algorithms could decide to block the word “homosexual” in the sentence “The Catholic Church opposes homosexual marriage”–thus leaving the viewer to read that “The Catholic Church opposes marriage”. Or consider the blocking of Congressman Dick Arney’s website, the University of Kansas’s Archie R. Dykes Medical Library, and the phrase “at least 21” from a human rights site reporting that at least 21 people were killed or wounded in an incident in Indonesia (‘at least 21’ being the typical disclaimer on porn sites.) O my! Can you blame Google for pulling out of China?

Not to fear…books are being memorized (scanned)! And, even the Chinese have heard about those fields of edible berries not to mention all the frolicking possibilities of gay Paree.

Dr. Sutton conducted a major study to determine the effects of Internet filtering on the ability of high school students to research for class papers. One of her conclusions and now her belief about filtering resistance in general is how miraculous it was that the majority of students with great ease discovered and shared creative ways to unlock and work around the filtering.

Go ahead, says our righteous curiosity, put up your walls if you must. For, as William Faulkner acknowledged when receiving his Nobel prize: “… I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”

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