Birth of a New Nation

Thanks to the recent federal court decision against the CDA, the Internet is now truly the home of the free, and we are somehow better for fighting this bitter battle.The CDA was the Stamp Act of the Net. It forced the digital culture to see itself as a separate entity, and to defend the freedoms, privileges, and traditions it has patched together in recent years.It made clear that the values characterizing the Net are profoundly different than those governing much of the country. It united a fractious, fragmented, diverse collection of individuals, businesses, and communities in a way that had never occurred before, and might not have been possible without the dunderheaded political posturing of our elected leaders.When tens of thousands of black Web pages went up earlier this year in protest of the CDA, a new kind of political community was born. Revolutions are easy to preach, but hard to carry out. The CDA provided the Net and Web communities with an urgent need to defend a shared belief -- that information wants to be free. For now, at least, that principle has been established as a defining value of the online community.The CDA is historic not because it ever seriously threatened free speech -- it didn't -- but because it helped this new kind of political force to coalesce, and helped lift the digital world out of its sometimes narcissistic self-absorption.Like the British taxes on tea and other imports, the CDA gave the digital world a sense of itself as a separate nation. And it raised precisely the same question the early colonial patriots asked: How can any community be governed rationally by a remote and arrogant authority?So the most important impact of the battle over the CDA is this: It revealed the presence of a collective system of moral values worth fighting for, and a vital, peaceful, and ascending community willing to do the fighting.But mainstream journalists -- historically the most vocal proponents of free speech -- have been conspicuously absent from the CDA struggle. Journalists have tragically failed in recent years to make the vital connection between free speech for the press and free speech for rappers, children, TV producers, and the digital world.Instead, they have created a climate in which these new media have been viewed as dangerous or destructive and in need of censorship and control. In the most profound way, this has shifted the locus of free speech and civic discourse to the Internet, which the federal courts described in the CDA ruling as "a far more speech-enhancing medium than print," and as "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed." This is a stunning declaration, a landmark in the evolution of the digital world as a political entity in its own right. As such, said the judges, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion.The press should have been leading the charge against intrusive and ignorant attacks like the CDA for decades already. The assaults have occurred in numerous forms, against music, culture, onscreen information, and freedom in the digital world. But instead of fighting these assaults on freedom, the press, in most cases, has ignored, supported, or fomented them. In so doing, it has turned against its own fathers.The idea that information should be free and opinion and speech should be unfettered was a stunning idea when it was introduced by our nation's founders. The court ruling on the CDA reminds us that it still is. The voices of the founders of the American media are clearer and more relevant than ever, their sacrifices and courage not in vain. In fact, they ring through the digital world today.Now the pressure is on to do something more about our ratified freedom than crow about it.

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