The way to keep the Internet safe for children, according to many Christians and cyber libertarians leery of government censorship, is for parents to employ filtering software, which promises to prevent children from signing on to sexually explicit or other harmful sites.
The most commercially successful filtering software-outselling its competitors by as much as 10 to one and rated best of them all by a number of computer magazines-is CyberPatrol.
Published by The Learning Company and automatically updated on-line, CyberPatrol blocks out sites that fall into 12 categories: Violence/Profanity, Partial Nudity, Full Nudity, Sexual Acts, Gross Depictions, Intolerance, Satanic/Cult, Drugs/Drug Culture, Militant/Extremist, Sex Education, Questionable/Illegal and Gambling, and Alcohol and Tobacco.
Christians might be surprised to find themselves included in such company. The American Family Association, Donald Wildmon's media watchdog organization and a longtime advocate of filtering the Internet, is now being filtered by CyberPatrol.
The AFA's Web site, itself devoted to fighting the media's "Gross Depictions," has been judged blockable on the grounds of "intolerance," a category previously reserved for Nazis and Klansmen. The AFA, like other Christian activist organizations, questions the gay-rights movement and teaches that homosexual acts are immoral. This is considered an example of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is a clear violation of the criteria published in the CyberPatrol manual. Impressionable young minds thus need to be protected from the heinous, shocking ideas of moral conservatives.
There was a time when CyberPatrol blocked out homosexual-related sites. But then the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) waxed indignant and complained about the company's discriminatory policies. It is a sign of the times that the one group that seems to exercise a compelling moral authority today is homosexuals. CyberPatrol not only changed its policy, the company installed a representative from GLAAD on its oversight committee.
Despite its presence on the CyberPatrol committee that rules on which sites should be blocked, GLAAD has continued to fight against filtering software. The organization, playing both sides, is now calling on the AFA-which it calls a "religious political extremist group"-to join it in fighting Internet censorship and policies requiring filtering software for schools and libraries. Clearly GLAAD's lobbying shows no interest in protecting children from any kind of bad influence-quite the opposite. And yet, there sit its representatives on the board of CyberPatrol, where they can exert their influence to filter out traditional morality.
AFA officials appealed their filtering, but the oversight committee voted to continue blocking their Web site, agreeing only to re-review the site in a month and to study whether they are applying the category of "intolerance" in a consistent way.
The problem is that the standards of CyberPatrol are not based on any transcendent ethic, but upon the one absolute still recognized in a godless culture: the imperative to be nice. "Gross depictions" are not nice, but neither are ideas that criticize other people's behavior. Christianity, with its condemning laws and scandalously exclusive gospel, is certainly not nice either.
If there is a new moral consensus, it is for a nice society. Everyone is made to feel good about themselves, no matter what they do. Everyone enjoys a positive self-image, free of all restrictions and immune even from criticism.
Our culture may be getting so mixed up that its moral code is getting turned upside down. Sexual practices condemned by nearly every culture on the face of the earth are considered moral, while opposing these practices is labeled immoral. Isaiah warned about this sort of values inversion: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil" (Isaiah 5:20).
Christians think of themselves as the good guys, standing up for what is right. They should perhaps prepare themselves for the prospect of being seen by the culture as bad guys-homophobe absolutists who think they have the only truth, ranking in the public esteem somewhere below child molesters.
In the meantime, what can be done about the Internet? In a secularist culture, both filtering software and federal regulations may well be used to filter out Christianity along with other undesirable elements.
Another kind of software simply informs parents what sites their children have visited. Instead of making it impossible for children to see certain sites, this approach puts parental discipline at the center. Children, realizing that their parents are looking over their shoulders, are thus taught to internalize the restraints and to develop a conscience of their own.
As Christians get involved in these debates-before they get filtered altogether-they should keep in mind the warning of the great Puritan poet John Milton in his classic argument against state censorship, Areopagitica: "If it come to prohibiting, there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself."