2.14 Welfare Issues

Governments concerned with the safety and welfare of their citizens enforce measures that regulate everything from weights and measures to road traffic laws, medicines and some media content. Newspapers and print media are traditionally beyond government control in western democracies because these countries allow freedom of speech, but the same liberty does not necessarily extend to the publicly-owned media of telephone, television and the Internet. Much legislation is uncontroversial, but several issues still divide public opinion and/or are regulated differently in different countries. Restrictions on Internet content, however well intentioned, or even sensible, are often seen as the 'thin end' of censorship, and vigorously opposed.


Pornography is a lucrative business and the industry earns revenues exceeding those of the top technology companies combined, more than the total revenue of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink. 2006 worldwide revenues exceeded $97 billion, $13.3 billion from the US alone, where 21% came from porn websites. 25% of all web searches are adult-content related. {1}

Attitudes vary considerably. Many are relaxed about such figures, and the early age at which children commonly start watching Internet pornography. Some argue, however, that the activity inculcates limiting or sexist attitudes, {2} or worry about the exploitation of performers. {3} Most countries treat child pornography as a serious crime, however: {4} to create, distribute or simply view such material carries heavy penalties. In 2008, 94 of the 187 Interpol member states had laws addressing child pornography. {5}

Protection of Children

Schools and parents often restrict Internet viewing by using filtering software that blocks access to 'adult' material. Programs are widely available, and inexpensive. {6}

Many commercial hosting companies also forbid pornography. Google does not permit its AdSense ads to appear on such sites, and is believed to penalize any site sharing servers with sites of adult and controversial content.

Some countries have tried to go further, and introduce legislation making it a felony offense to transmit material that is obscene, lascivious and/or indecent, particularly to persons under the age of 18. China, {7} for example, has a blanket ban on such material, and the US has several times attempted to impose something similar. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in 1996, but the act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as an unconstitutional restriction on the free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. {8} A Children's Online Protection Act (COPA) fell at the same hurdle. Introduced by Congress in 1998, the act was struck down by the Pennsylvania federal district court in 1999 as unconstitutional. {9} Recognizing it represented the need for some protection, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Court of Appeals in 2002. A year later it was again declared unconstitutional, a process repeated several times until January 2009, when the Supreme Court refused further appeals. {10}

Congress introduced the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2001, requiring schools and libraries to install filtering software to protect young persons from adult content. {11} Once again the legislation was struck down in the courts, but some more limited protective measures have been successful. {12} The 2002 Domain Names Act prevents websites using well-known but misleading names that might lure children to their sites. {13} The 2002 Dot Kids Act allows for the creation of a second-level domain name that specifically excludes material harmful to children. {14}

Online Gambling

Online gambling is prohibited or restricted in many countries {16} ostensibly to 'protect public health and morals', but for reasons that probably lie in some mixture of:

1. Susceptibility to fraud: players have little protection from fraudulent weighting of the electronic roulette wheel, etc.
2. Individuals can run up large debts, leaving families or banks to foot the bill.
3. Online gambling can be used to launder money. Online gambling worldwide was generating over $60 billion a year, a astonishing sum, exceeding the total revenues from spectator sports, theme parks, cruise ships and recorded music combined. {15}

Though much of US gambling was through offshore sites, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006, {16} and arrested two executive officers of offshore gambling companies as they passed through the country. The picture remained confused, however, with gambling persisting in some form in many states. {17} The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2010 prohibited institutions from accepting payments from any person engaged in the business of betting or wagering with a business in unlawful Internet gambling, but implementation has been delayed. {18}

Money laundering seems less of a problem. A US GAO study {19} found that online gambling was not an especially easy way to hide money trails, and in fact drug dealers and other criminal groups can and do find other ways, some blocked by banks {20} and some not. {21}


Patients increasingly use the Internet to find information on prescriptions that their health care provider has not the time to explain fully, both information put out by the drug companies {22} and the findings of patients. {23} Because drugs are generally more expensive in the USA, patients also turn to cheaper online sources, a solution that has obvious dangers. {24} Illegal drugs account for around $75 billion in worldwide sales, and some 1-2% of drugs purchased by Americans may be worthless imitations. {25}

Some online pharmacies ask to see the prescription before supplying. Some have resident doctors that check that the drug requested is safe and appropriate. Many do neither, however, and some supply generic (cheaper, non-branded) drugs that may be markedly inferior to branded products. {28} The FDA naturally frowns on these practices, which have resulted in some deaths {26} and several convictions. {27} {28} In 2008 Congress passed the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act to prevent the illegal distribution and dispensing of controlled substances, which also required suppliers to see a prescription issued by a doctor who has personally examined the patient. {29} Not all were pleased by such measures, however, and the elderly on reduced incomes tended to see the matter as one more example of Big Pharma's influence on Washington. {30} Online pharmacies continue to thrive, however, and sites exist {31} to mitigate some of the dangers and suggest safe sources.


Institutions and authorities are increasingly requiring websites to be accessible to those with disabilities, i.e. unable to hear, view a website and/or use a mouse. In 1998 the Rehabilitation Act was amended to require US agencies, contractors and recipients of federal funds make electronic and information technology services available to such groups, and there have been successful lawsuits against infringements. {32} Captchas and screen buttons are obvious difficulties, which Braille keywords and synthesizers that automatically convert screen text to speech will not resolve. The World Wide Web Consortium has issued guidelines, {33} which have not been fully acted on, {34} {35} perhaps understandably, given the cost of upgrading or creating websites that use more advanced technology by the year.


1. Why do welfare issues apply also to the Internet?
2. Describe the varying attitudes to pornography, between countries and individuals.
3. What legislation is in place to protect children on the Internet, in the USA and elsewhere?
4. Why is online gambling restricted or prohibited, and with what success in the USA?
5. Outline the controversies over online drug dispensaries? Why have they arisen? What seem to you sensible approaches?
6. How successful has been legislation to improve web accessibility, in the US and abroad?

Sources and Further Reading

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