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Held out as hope for the future along those lines is the notion that ratings systems such as the W3 Consortium-backed PICS might be sensitive and configurable enough to allow third parties whose views are known, such as, say, the Christian Coalition or the Boy Scouts, to supply filtering services. Blocking software and other types of filtering mechanisms will have to get much better, with more standardized interfaces, before this is a reality, but it would be a good approach. he current situation, where some of these companies treat their databases of blocked sites the way the National Security Agency wants to treat cryptography, will continue to create trouble. In late 1996, Solid Oak began blocking the site of a high school student who put up a list of sites blocked by CyberSitter (and other, similar products). The incident was reported by McCullagh in a story for the Netly News. A few months later, when the city of Boston installed the competing "censorware" product Cyber Patrol (which blocks the AOL-sucks and Planned Parenthood sites) on all the city libraries' computers, McCullagh announced Netly News's new Censorware Search Engine, which allowed people to find out if their Web sites were banned in Boston.
However imperfect a solution this kind of software is, individual choice is the only strategy that's likely to work in the long run. Blunt-instrument approaches are likely to fail for the same reason and in the same way that the attempts at removing the Church of Scientology's secret documents have failed: there are too many sites and too many people who believe that access should be allowed, whether or not they themselves want to make use of that specific material. Besides, countries disagree widely on what pornography is and what should be banned.
Ultimately, the Net doesn't create real life, it only reflects it. We may not like what it shows us, or the fact that online technology--Internet Relay Chat, Webcams (little digital cameras whose output is posted on the Web), those text-based shared worlds known as MUDs, conferencing, even email--gives people freedom to explore their sexuality in new ways. It may be an unpleasant revelation that Nebraska housewives want to fantasize about bondage with like-minded people in AOL chat rooms, or that so many strangers want to retire to private channels to indulge in frenzied one-handed typing, or that men want to post pictures of other men posing in full glory in front of woodpiles. These days, such activities seem safer than sex in the real world. But the question to ask is what the Net is teaching us about the society we built before we got wired.
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