A Protest In Cyberspace

On December 12, 1995 concerned citizens of every stripe gathered together to hold hands, listen to radical orators, and sing protest songs. Though there was no special committee formed to examine aerial photographs of the crowd in order to determine it's size, the demonstration included thousands of people from far afield as Poughkeepsie and Moab. No, this was not another pilgrimage to D.C.. It was the first national protest in cyberspace.

The cry went up sometime in early December, across Web sites and electronic mailboxes:


The trouble dates back to a warm June evening as Senator Jim Exon (D-Nebraska) was watching a program on Dateline NBC<> about pornography on the Internet. Filled with dread for his innocent children, Good Jim decided to fashion himself some legislation to prevent this heathen propaganda from insinuating itself in the minds of God-fearing youngsters everywhere. Luckily, just about this time the Congress's behemoth Telecommunications Bill was in utero and Jimbo decided to make his mark.

The Exon amendment to the telecommunications bill is a predictable melange of conservative moralism. Taking input from the Christian Coalition, Exon proposed a $100,000 fine for any individual (or service provider that enabled such an individual) that posts "indecent" material on the Internet. At its heart, Exon's ambiguous use of the word "indecent" gives carte blanche to government intervention in this hitherto anarchic realm. Predictably this was not pleasing to Third Wave Commandant Gingrich.

When the bill went into conference in the House, Reps Chris Cox (R-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Rick White (R-WA) found it too radical for their tastes. Based less on their working knowledge of the medium than on their constituency (White's district includes Seattle's Microsoft) they created their own version which couched strong prohibitive language about pornographers within the latest neo-con lingo about preserving the freedoms of cyberspace. After lengthy paragraphs describing how important it is to keep government out of the Internet, the House suggested two important changes: 1) Commit government support to software currently in development that would enable individual household to block undesirable online material. 2) Rely on existing pornography laws to prosecute Internet pornographers.

Thus the House sent its conflicting amendment back to the original Senate conference headed by Exon where most agree it will be killed outright. The conference's first meeting was scheduled for December 12.

Though the Cox/Wyden/White amendment smells a little fishy as concerns Rep. White's (remember Microsoft) commitment to private software developers, the approach is much more in sync with the desires of Internet liberties activists. With December 12 looming, a loose coalition of these groups planned a unique form of national sit-in: The Internet Day of Protest.

The protest was designed around a single "Alert" message posted by Voter Telecommunications Watch and widely distributed to Web pages and e-mail boxes across the land. Part chain letter, part broadside, the message gave a brief overview of the crisis and suggested readers contact Congress to voice their opposition. Right away the benefits of the medium were obvious as VTW had provided a phone/fax/e-mail list of select Senators and Congresspeople.

For a potential protester, this made citizen action an easy affair. With a few keystrokes, the message was on its way to a friend and potential enlistee. A few more keystrokes and the form letter of protest provided by VTW was on its way to a Senate e-mail box (though the list of Senators actually online is depressingly small). And for those equipped with the right kind of modem another few keystrokes would send the provided letter off to the fax machine of a Senator of your choosing.

After sending the protest letter to Congress, desktop activists were encouraged to forward the alert on to a friend or friends (depending on the extent of your social life). My alert message came by way of a friend in Oakland, Calif. He, in turn, had received it from a friend in D.C., and so on. Each person, in turn, had been one in an extensive list of people to whom the message was forwarded. If I was tenth recipient in my line, and each recipient before me had forwarded the message to ten of their friends, I reckoned according to chain mail logic, some sort of disaster would likely be averted or some magical wish would certainly come true. Unfortunately, I recalled in my e-mail stupor, this is Congress we're talking about here.

In addition to direct action, the VTW's message also cross-referenced Web sites where people could get more information about the protest and civil liberties issues in general. Like all forays into cyberspace, this spur on the highway was hit or miss. Wired<> magazine's protest bulletin included their version of events, replete with trendy slang and missives such as this from Wired<> Internet correspondent Brock Meeks: "[This legislation is like] ramming a hot poker up the ass of the Internet." But for a potential protester, by far the most helpful site on the Web was the Center for Democracy in Technology, which posted a comparative study of the amendments along with information about which coalitions (Christian or otherwise) backed which version. It was also heartening to read something written for the intelligence of the reader rather than his/her libido.

When queried, the office of Senator Wendell Ford (D-KY) (one of the few who as an e-mail account) said that the Senator had received over 1500 e-mail messages -- all in one day without tying up the phone lines. On the other hand, the office of Senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC) received no e-mail, but had their fax lines tied up all day with the 300 incoming faxes (they felt that something must have been wrong with the Senate e-mail server link to their computers).

Of course these numbers are small in the world of protest and, predictably, the Voters Telecommunications Watch count far exceeds what this small sampling suggests. However it is evident immediately that this early protest in what suggests to be a long battle over Internet regulation was at least as effective as its real-life, non-online counterparts. Perhaps the well-worn adage that the Internet will enhance participation in democracy is true, at least for couch potatoes and those of us with nothing better to do.

BOX: Online Civil Liberties Groups<>

* Voters Telecommunications Watch: http://www.vtw.org
* Center for Democracy and Technology: http://www.cdt.org
* American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org

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