Culver City announced recently that it will use filtering technology from Audible Magic to block "illegal and problematic" content on the free wireless Internet service it offers in Town Plaza. The filters are designed to stop copyrighted music and movies from being downloaded through file-sharing networks, as well as barring users from partaking of the Web's bounty of porn. Predictably, the announcement drew a variety of protests from folks who bristle at any effort to stop copyright infringement online, such as this entry from Techdirt, which lambasted the city for engaging in a fool's errand at the MPAA's behest.
What troubles me about the announcement is that when government restricts access to information, it's censorship. One analogy might be a city yanking from its library all material purporting to show that the Holocaust was a myth. Such a move might be well-intentioned, but it's still censorship. And it begs the question, which disfavored content or activity will be next?
There's a critical difference here, however. Downloading copyrighted works without authorization is illegal (unless it's not a fair use, and it's hard to imagine the fair use in most file-sharing). And while porn isn't illegal unless it meets the Supreme Court's test for obscenity, California's "harmful matters" statute makes it unlawful to display porn in areas accessible to minors -- a definition that arguably could apply to Culver City's Internet service. Trying to prevent illegal activity isn't exactly outrageous behavior by a taxpayer-funded operation.
No question, file-sharing filters won't stop people who are determined to download bootlegged goods. People in the warez scene spend an incredible amount of energy maintaining the wellspring of free booty, and there's way more of them than there are engineers at companies like Audible Magic. But filters will slow down the masses of casual downloaders, as well as delivering an important message: if you're using the network to get free copies of a movie, game or CD that you'd otherwise have to pay for, you're doing something wrong. Culver City may be more willing than most places to make that point, given how many people in town work for the studios. But fact that movie studios are a big employer in Culver City doesn't make downloading a copy of "The Illusionist" any less illegal.
Culver City isn't shutting off peer-to-peer traffic, nor is it slapping NetNanny onto its network. Instead, it's taking a very targeted approach, using Audible Magic to try to stop people from copying works that are known to be copyrighted or pornographic. The city isn't telling anyone what to do with their home or business Internet accounts. It's simply overseeing a service it provides. That's what city officials are paid to do. If residents don't like the policy, they can lobby City Hall for unencumbered access to porn and bootlegs.