Monday, March 23, 2009

Does the Mormon Church have a position on Internet filtering?

Over the weekend I ran across an article, awkwardly entitled "Mormons demand ICANN plugs net smut hole." Curious, I clicked on the link, but I almost closed it again when I saw that the article was from The Register. Fortunately, I kept reading and found some interesting tidbits. The article talked about how ICANN, the non-profit organization that controls much of the structure of the Internet, has received a petition (PDF) from a group called CyberSafety Constituency. The organization hopes to be accepted as the newest constituency recognized by ICANN, with the purpose of representing the interests of "families, children, consumers, victims of cybercrime, religions, and cultures." This is mostly a policy issue, but as is often the case, it is hard to separate law from policy. I realized that ICANN policies are not technically laws -- they might even be illegal, since ICANN was not created to make policy decisions -- but inasmuch as it controls the architecture of the Internet, ICANN's word is law.

Kevin Murphy, the author of the article, doesn't do a particularly good job explaining the situation. He apparently concludes that this is a Mormon initiative becuase the proposal is being led by Ralph Yarro III, a well known (and sometimes controversial) Internet and technology figure who is CEO of the Utah-based SCO Group, Inc. The proposal was authored by Cheryl Preston, attorney for CP80, a Utah-based group that proposes "zoning" online adult content to certain ports. Murphy further points out that many of the commenters in the public comment phase have cited their location as Utah. And as he points out, Utah is 58% Mormon. Boom! It must be a Mormon initiative. (Murphy also throws in a superfluous jab against the Mormon church, citing a recent study (PDF) that found that Utah led the nation in online adult content consumption.)

Kevin Murphy did not mention that Cheryl Preston, the CyberSafety Constituency petitioner, is also a BYU law professor. I think this is probably the strongest argument that this ICANN petition is Mormon-supported, although it still isn't dispositive -- individual Mormons are active in a broad array of organizations or causes. To my knowledge, the LDS Church has never taken a position on how the Internet should be governed, or what architecture mechanisms should be used. Even if the Mormon Church supported some sort of protocol that facilitated content filtering, it isn't clear what level of filtering it would advocate. One the one hand, the Church generally opposes pornography, but it also has vested interest in maintaining strong First Amendment rights for its own free exercise of religion. I don't believe there is an official Mormon position on how that balance should be maintained.

For my part, I am reluctant to alter current architecture in the way CP80 proposes. I can see the value in adopting mechanisms that would make it easier for parents to control the content or security threats exposed to their children. But all of these proposals run up against a definitional problem. Even if a functional filtering process is put into place, who decides what content belongs in what "channel"? It's a problem reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart's famous concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, calling it "trying to define what may be indefinable." I also have some reservations about the proposed CyberSafety Constituency's purpose and scope, because the purpose cited in the petition is colossally broad and potentially contradictory. But the bottom line is that this initiative is not supported by the Mormon Church. Not all Mormons would support it, and most Mormons have probably never heard of any of the proposed constituency or its supporting organizations.