Porn Banned From Government Computers, But at What Price?

law porn bill

The House of Representatives approved a bill last week to snuff out access to porn on government-owned PCs. "Fair enough!" the more puritanical among you may think. But the bill's halo effect could be financially tricky.

The anti-porn ruling came as a 111-page amendment from Democrat David Obey. The amendment is a direct response to recent headlines revealing that government employees --including, as CNet notes, people who were supposed to be inspecting Gulf oil platforms--had been using government PCs to view porn. The general feeling behind the amendment is that employees using government computers are acting on behalf of the people, and thus effectively are wasting taxpayers' money by viewing porn.

It's easy to prove this thinking is flawed. Is porn "evil?" Is viewing porn "worse" than using a government PC to play your MP3s over headphones while you work? Who decides the moral line here, when porn viewing is extraordinarily common among the public whose morals/tax dollars this bill is designed to protect? But the worst aspect of the bill may be the language of the amendment itself.

The amendment states "None of the funds made available in this act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography." This places the burden of filtering and blocking "pornography" (with a fabulously vague use of the "p" word) on the owners of the computers and networks, and it doesn't limit the scope of the bill to federal networks.

This means that contractors and sub-contractors engaged in government contract work may fall under the remit of the bill. They'd and be required to install and manage expensive software at their own expense--even if some employees aren't engaged in government work. The language of the bill is also vague, and the American Civil Liberties Union has already raised concerns about it, noting that the Supreme Court has commented that moves to "eliminate sexually explicit speech" on the Net have raised serious concerns about the right to free speech. And with this amendment tacked onto the FY10 Disaster Supplemental Bill, it may even set a greater legal precedent.

CNet quotes anti-porn groups who argue the ruling is merely sensible, as taxpayers are entitled to get their money's worth from federal employees. But even that argument is flawed--as the same piece of illogic could be used to ensure employees don't take coffee breaks or unpaid leave in the case of personal emergencies.

As with any ruling about free speech and moral stances on issues like pornography, every position is merely a line in the sand. But is this new one, drawn up by overly enthusiastic lawmakers, just one line too far--a line that'll cause more problems than the alleged one it's supposed to "cure"?

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5 Comments

  • Andrew Malcolm

    Three words: sexual harassment lawsuit.

    I personally don't believe that it is wrong for an employer to protect itself from potential litigation, and I think that people viewing pornography at work might put a business on pretty shaky grounds.

    At the end of the day, the employer is footing the bill for everything you do on the clock. If it were ruled unconstitutional to ban pornography during break time (Really? You can't wait to get home to rub one out?) then I would suggest banning network use for non-company related business. Sure, people could still use their mobiles to view porn, but at least it wouldn't be using company resources.

    That's not to say I am offended by pornography... On the contrary. I just agree that there is no reason to watch it at work.

  • Daniel Weinreb

    You ask whether it will cause more problems. Let's look at the problems.

    How expensive would it actually be for the contractors to install the filtering software? Such software is available to ordinary consumers at a price they are willing to pay, which suggests that it can't be all that difficult and expensive. Yes, they have to make sure it's installed on all their machines, but most large contractors already have management software to do that kind of thing.

    Moves to "eliminate sexually explicit speech" on the Net do indeed raise serious concerns. But nobody is trying to stop these people from viewing anything at home on their own time.

    If an employee takes unpaid leave, then the taxpayers don't have any money to worry about.

    The coffee break issue is interesting. Suppose the employees who were supposed to be inspecting the oil platforms were doing something analogous to coffee breaks, but instead of drinking coffee and chatting, they spent ten minutes a day or so viewing explicit material on the net. That wouldn't hurt their job performance (in my opinion). What is causing the worry is presumably the worry that they are spending a great deal of time viewing the material, and so not getting their job done.

    To be sure, the fact that it's considered "vice" certainly is a significant factor, and different people feel differently about this. But I think your article is not as nuanced as it could be.

  • Jamil Farshchi

    The reality is that most federal agencies already block pornographic sites as a matter of course. The technologies to block such sites are already employed in an effort to reduce the risk of employees visiting websites that are security risks, such as sites which are suspected of serving malware. Because federal agencies are already subjected to follow guidelines in the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), which requires strong security controls, the incremental cost of blocking porn sites is negligible. In fact, due to the security risks associated with many of these types of sites, blocking them arguably reduces information security operating costs.

    Furthermore, federal government employees are already disallowed from conducting certain activities on their computer systems, such as using government computers to conduct personal business activities, so there is already a precedent for this type of restriction. The same applies to non-computer assets as well in that government employees are not allowed to use government vehicles for personal use - whether it be stopping at the grocery store or going to a strip-club.

    It seems a stretch to argue that employees of the federal government (or private business for that matter) should have the right to do as they please with an asset that is owned, managed, and directly affiliated with their employer. If you have an issue with it, civil liberties or otherwise, then use your own computer.

  • David Dawson

    "As with any ruling about free speech and moral stances on issues like pornography, every position is merely a line in the sand."

    What are you trying to say here? That there's not a right answer here, and the best we can do is simply draw arbitrary conclusions that hopefully most people can agree on?

    By the way, to answer your question, yeah, viewing pornography at work is worse that streaming MP3s over your headphones for a variety of reasons, including that music doesn't occupy the senses typically needed to complete a job, but most basically because it's vulgar and has no place in the workplace.

  • wyrmmage

    Man, I long for the days when news companies at least pretended to not be incredibly over-biased. Oh and in your next article, could you maybe try not to blatantly tell people what to believe?