My Way or the Highway’s Way?

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.

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9 Comments

Filed under censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

9 responses to “My Way or the Highway’s Way?

  1. One additional idea to add to the mix on this topic of censorship.

    It’s about fear.

    Fear on the part of organizations such as the NY Thruway that by NOT filtering content, someone will be offending by the material they accessed and sue them.

  2. Neal, I know I can always count on you to point out the very important things that I miss! Thank you!

    The fear you mention is so important to discuss — and of course not just because of how it impacts policies that address sexual practices or material. What range of ways do we limit ourselves — or impose limits on others — because we are afraid of having to defend a lawsuit? Why are lawsuits the tool we as a society reach for so often when we believe we have been wronged? Partly because we know that law enforcement agencies and regulatory agencies don’t always protect us, perhaps. And also because we don’t have a common agreement about what is reasonable by way of differences or what is understandable by way of mistakes. Certainly there are times when lawsuits are completely justified and properly used. But it strikes me that often they are used to either do a job that the government ought to have done itself, or to do a job that ought not be done at all.

    And since they are so expensive, we often preempt them by limiting our activities or controlling the scope of how others can act in some space that we “own.”

    Sociologists talk about how group norms are often more effective at regulating behavior than are actual laws. This isn’t even about real norms — it’s about our conservatively staying inside a boundary that doesn’t even come close to the limit of what would be considered acceptable according to the norms.

  3. This is a big topic, Elizabeth, with sexuality being only one aspect of it. People seem to get offended way too easily one the one hand, while civility and “manners”, a kind of group norm appear to be lost.

    It would seem that your comment about “group norms being a more effective method of regulating behavior than actual laws” makes sense. Regrettably, it appears that those norms are more frequently breaking down as our culture becomes less cooperative and collaborative and much more hostile and confrontive. This breakdown seems to happen all the way from marital and family relationships, to business and professional interactions, all the way to the way our government deals with the rest of the world.

    Maybe we all need to get back in the sandbox and learn how to play together again?

  4. As for libraries filtering websites, I remember the library near where I grew up used to have big problems with homeless guys coming in and masturbating while looking at porn on the liberally scattered computers. As a kid, this was mildly scary, to say the least.

    But, yes, it’s a different matter when accessing the internet on personal computers in public places.

  5. Ejecting the public masturbators would seem a more sensible solution than filtering the web sites, though certainly a less pleasant chore for the librarians. Do you remember whether it was the apparent homelessness of the men that was scary, or if it was the masturbation that was scary?

  6. One thing that this issue brings up for me is the idea of what qualifies as “public” space anymore, and what does that mean? And in tandem with that, what are our roles and responsibilities within that space?

    I think that one of the most pernicious effects of the conservative deathgrip on politics for the last thirty years has been the disintegration of the idea of citizenship. Conservatives see the fundamental building block of society as being not “citizens,” with interdependent rights, needs, and responsibilities, but “consumers,” who buy these things with their tax dollars.

    So in this context, where so many of our public commons have been made private, the corporate consumer model is kind of assumed. That is, government and moralists can deny your right to your web site with an excuse that’s become almost ritually accepted: “I don’t want to pay for that.” In other words, adult websites, when permitted by government institutions, are seen not only as a moral threat, but as an act of theft against those who either don’t use them or don’t admit to using them.

  7. Chris, that problem is extended, too, when you consider how much of what used to be “commons” is literally privatized. The rest areas on the thruway are not just “public” spaces; they are McDonalds and Starbucks. The mall is the new town square. And those “public” spaces are unmistakably privately owned.

    Even the Internet, which is as decentralized as a public space can be, is really a connection of lots of privately owned spaces. My ability to create a web site is dependent on hiring a place to host it, selecting a program with which to design it, and contracting with a company to provide me the access to the Internet in the first place. I’ve recently been exploring Terms of Service agreements for web hosting and have been surprised by how broad some prohibitions against any kind of “adult” or “sexually suggestive” content have been.

  8. Pingback: You have the right to speak freely (in an increasingly limited number of spaces) « Sex in the Public Square

  9. Judy Wood

    Dear Elizabeth:
    Your website provides a fascinating, educational, witty and meaningful discussion of sex that has broadened my views in a very healthy way. WordPress is making a big mistake and your site’s departure would be a loss and a sign they don’t really encourage public discourse or freedom of thought.