Universal Internet access sounds great. But not the way the head of the Federal Communications Commission envisions it.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin is proposing that free wireless Net access be made available to everyone as part of a sale of public airwaves. At the same time, he wants filters put in place so that no smut slips through to impressionable young Web surfers.
This would be the first time such filters have been imposed by an Internet service provider rather than individual users, allowing government officials or a private company to decide what can and can't be seen online.
"It's very troubling," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a digital-rights watchdog. "A government-mandated filter at the network level means the government can block anything it finds objectionable."
The FCC will begin drawing up rules later this month to auction off bandwidth intended for wireless service. Martin wants the winning bidder to set aside a quarter of the airwaves for free Internet access.
Two years ago, T-Mobile paid $4 billion for an adjacent slice of spectrum.
The free Internet service would not provide the fastest access available. But it would be child-safe because porn and other objectionable material would be cut off at the source.
The winning bidder would still be able to cash in by using the remaining 75% of the bandwidth for higher-speed, no-filters-attached wireless Net access that would come with a monthly fee.
"This initiative brings with it the promise of a free basic broadband service to hundreds of thousands of Americans who currently have limited or no access to the high-speed Internet," Martin said in a statement.
"It is important that we find new and creative ways to make broadband services more accessible, reliable and robust throughout our nation, and this initiative will help us meet that goal."
That's fine. But why link universal broadband access to the slippery slope of government censorship?
I'm a dad and I certainly don't want my 7-year-old son visiting some of the more lascivious neighborhoods of cyberspace. So it's up to me to keep a watchful eye on his Web browsing.
As my son gets older and more technically proficient, I suppose I'll experiment with some of the commercially available Web filters out there, such as CyberPatrol or Net Nanny. Ultimately, of course, I'll have to let him go off-leash and hope for the best.
The point is, it's my choice as a parent to determine how much Web access my child is provided. It's a whole other matter when these decisions are made by Washington bureaucrats or some team of corporate programmers.
Robert Kenny, an FCC spokesman, said any adult who doesn't want a porn filter imposed on his or her free Net access would be able to opt out of the program. But he was unable to say how the age verification would work -- that is, how you'd know whether the person opting out is in fact a grown-up and not a 13-year-old boy.
"It would be up to the winning bidder to design the system and put it in place," Kenny said.
What about the 1st Amendment? Isn't blocking Web content at the source -- even the most unsavory content -- a violation of the content provider's right to free speech?
"We believe that allowing adults to opt out addresses this issue," Kenny replied.
Then why just porn? Why doesn't Martin also want to filter out hate speech, such as sites that glorify Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan?
"Traditionally, the FCC has been concerned with protecting children from indecent content," Kenny said. "The chairman believes this is consistent with that priority."
I pointed out that he didn't quite answer my question, but Kenny said that was all he had to say on the subject. I also pointed out that you can see bare breasts online and you can see bare breasts at the Louvre. How do you decide what's indecent?
"To some degree," Kenny said, "you know it when you see it."
I guess I do, and that's a call I'm prepared to make on behalf of my family. But do you want me making it on behalf of yours? I don't think so.
And I'm darn sure that none of us want decisions like that being made by the government or private sector, at least as far as the Internet's concerned.
That's why Martin's proposal gets an A for effort but an F for execution.
Fuming over butts
I received more than 400 e-mails and calls in response to Sunday's column on cigarette-butt litter. Nearly everyone agreed that this was a blight on the environment and supported my proposal for a $1-per-pack butt deposit to promote cleaner smoking habits.
But I neglected to include several important points.
Several police officers wrote in to remind me that, according to Section 23111 of the California Vehicle Code, it's against the law to toss a lighted or unlighted cigarette on "any road or highway or adjoining area."
"For me and my colleagues, it is a ticket every time we see it," one cop warned.
According to Section 42001.7 of the vehicle code, anyone convicted of butt tossing faces a fine of up to $1,000 and mandatory community service consisting of picking up litter or cleaning up graffiti.
Dozens of readers also pointed out that only a knucklehead throws a lighted object from a vehicle in a region prone to wildfires. I didn't say that in the column because I thought it was obvious.
Clearly it's not, considering how often it happens every day.
David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.
Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you accept government censorship of websites in return for free Internet access?