I still haven’t received a reply from the New York State Thruway Authority to my e-mail about their filtering software and its settings. I thought I’d look for a customer service phone number, but the two on the Thruway Authority’s WiFi brochure are automated lines for technical assistance. I’ll go through their web site soon and find a real-person phone number. I’ll also resend the email.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking: highways are like public utilities. They are infrastructure supported by government money because without them the economy would wither. They are “public goods” because we all get to use them regardless how much we contribute to their upkeep. (Another blogger can discuss highways as “public bads” given that they encourage too much driving and discourage funding for rail and other public transit.)
Would you allow the electric company or the phone company to tell you what you could use their services for? While its true that many “public utilities” are privatizing, we still expect them to behave like protectors of public goods and back when there was only one local electricity provider we’d never have put up with their telling us what appliances we could buy, or what television stations we could watch. Likewise with phone companies. They don’t tell us who we can call, only what it will cost to do so. The Thruway Authority is offering a public good by providing WiFi access at its rest areas, and it should not be restricting the use of that access, even if their motivation is to “protect children.” I wonder what their rationale is. Perhaps they are acting preemptively, imagining that they will face the same kinds of challenges that public libraries have faced.
Libraries have already been around and around on this issue, and generally speaking, have lost. The Child Internet Protection Act requires public libraries that receive federal subsidies to install filters on their Internet access so that kids don’t accidentally come across pornography. Of course these filters also block a lot of mainstream informational web sites. But in any case, the US Supreme Court found CIPA constitutional and it remains the law. (Libertine reports in the comments on the previous post that his public library has never blocked access to his blogs, one of which is sexually explicit. Perhaps they have a better filter! Or perhaps they don’t receive federal funding?)
I would argue that the Thruway is more like a utility than like a library. And even if someone wanted to argue that the Thruway might be like a utility but that the rest areas are like libraries (libraries filled with McDonalds and Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts), I would point out that you can only even get to a rest area if you have a legal driver, and that person would have to be at least 16, and so nearly an adult (age-wise, anyway). Any young children would very likely be with their parents who could certainly make decisions about their Internet usage (and would probably be providing the machines).
Another issue raised by this policy is the differential treatment of print and electronic media. This is one focus of Susie Bright’s post from a few weeks ago, and also a comment made by Alex on my previous post. The Thruway doesn’t tell you what you can read, by way of magazines, in their public spaces. You could sit with your Big Mac and a Penthouse and presumably nobody from the Thruway Authority would throw you out. “Ah, but they’re not selling Penthouse in the little convenience store,” you say? Well they’re not selling the WiFi access or directing you to any specific sites, either. They’re simply providing the connectivity. Why do they care what you look at? It isn’t as if you are displaying it for all to see (and even if somebody caught a glimpse, how is that different from catching a glimpse of a dirty magazine?
All this filtering is said to be a way to protect children. But do parents really want the government deciding what is appropriate for their own individual kids? Wouldn’t parents typically want to decide that for themselves? Again, we’re not talking about what is being displayed on the ubiquitous rest area TVs. We’re just talking about what you, on your own portable wireless device, might browse while drinking your coffee.
I’m thinking that the New York State Thruway Authority is just trying to play it safe. They’re probably worried, given the case of public libraries, that Congress will require state thruway authorities to install filtering software at rest areas in order to be eligible for Federal highway dollars.
This false and unnecessary “safety” irritates me, as I’ve written many times before, and it certainly points to a continued need for people to speak out against censorship, and in favor of sexually explicit material, and to advocate for reasonable policies around public access to the Internet, which is not a trivial thing. The US Supreme Court, explained the value of public Internet access in libraries by noting that they provide “a vast democratic forum, open to any member of the public to speak on subjects as diverse as human thought.”
Meanwhile, in New York, the next time you see a “Your Highway Dollars At Work” sign, you’ll know that at least some of those dollars are used to ineffectively limit access to that diverse range of human thought.