WASHINGTON — M2Z Networks' proposal to build a free wireless broadband network is not the only controversial part of its business plan. Just as contentious is its intention to filter the content delivered over that network to block any material deemed inappropriate for children.
Free-speech advocates on the left and right have expressed alarm at M2Z's plans to build a family-friendly network that would weed out objectionable sites by blocking particular Internet domain names.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin took up that idea in his proposal to auction off a chunk of spectrum that would be used in part to deliver a basic broadband service over the nation's airwaves. It would ultimately be up to the FCC to decide exactly how any filtering mandate would work, including whether the filters would be located on the network or on user devices.
M2Z co-founder John Muleta says any company that offers a free broadband service that is available to everyone must figure out how to protect children from illegal and unlawful material — much as television networks must do with over-the-air TV broadcasts.
Yet this component of M2Z's plan has stirred a long-running debate about who should determine what constitutes "appropriate" content and about how effective content filters truly are. Critics say filters often make mistakes and block legitimate sites, including resources about health and sexual education.
John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, believes Martin's content-filtering rule would be unconstitutional because it would violate the First Amendment rights of people whose Web sites are blocked, and because parents already have access to a range of online tools to control what their children see on the Internet.
Indeed, the latter argument was one point cited by the Supreme Court in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, a landmark 1997 ruling that struck down a federal law regulating explicit material on the Internet.
To address these concerns, Martin's spectrum proposal would require the winning bidder to allow adults to opt out of content filtering.
But this raises a different problem, according to Berin Szoka, a fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation. That's because one benefit of a broadband service open to all is that it offers the potential for anonymity. The only way to allow adults to opt out of content filtering, however, would be to have users authenticate themselves, Szoka said. And that, he said, would sacrifice anonymity.
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