Indecent Proposal

This column may soon be illegal Bing. Bing. My electronic mailbox is ringing like a pinball machine with a jammed coin slot. For days I have been getting the minute by minute updates thorugh a curious pipeline of electronic democracy. Date: Sun, 11 Jun 1995 23:38:53: Subject: ALERT We have 48 hours left in Senate; please act; Date: Tue, 13 Jun 95 11:58:15 EDT: I spoke with Kerry's office again and the bill is still being debated, and no amendments have been considered yet... Date: Tue, 13 Jun 1995 18:47:41 EDT: Coats just introduced his amendment to S.652, or possibly a separate bill... Date: Tue, 13 Jun 1995 21:49:18: Senate went home tonight. No news on the CDA... Wed, 14 Jun 1995 17:25:10: Subject: Exon vote is now happening, we're losing... Date: Wed, 14 Jun 1995 17:34:53: The Senate just approved the Exon/Coats amendment, 84 to 16. The Leahy alternative amendment was defeated... Date: 14 Jun 1995 17:41:15 PDT: Shit, Dan, what do we do next? Whoops, better think twice about publishing that last message. That's one of the seven dirty words immortalized by George Carlin and the FCC. If this column gets posted to our online service LiveWire, I might just get fined a hundred grand and slapped in the cooler for two years-or both-because some judge in Memphis, Tennessee thinks it's "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent," to quote Senator Exon's legislation. What's protected in print by the First Amendment will soon be criminal activity when the medium is digital ink-if the House passes and the President signs Exon's bill. Date: 16 Jun 1995 01:57:28 : What the hell is the deal here? All of the sudden, within the past week, there has been undeniable kiddie porn on this NG [newsgroup]. It's kinda weird that it is right before the Senate's vote on the Common Decency act, don't you think? I have NEVER seen anything as blatant as some of the stuff posted in the past week than in the last few years on usenet. This stuff is planted, folks. Date: Wed, 21 Jun 1995 09:18:33 -0500 (CDT): If I'm a sysop, and I look at a gif, textfile, newsgroup, or other electronic document, how do I decide whether it is "indecent" or not? Uh oh. Things are getting even crazier. Now there are bomb-making instructions in my mailbox. Dan Brown, system administrator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation is signing each of his Internet messages with a tag that reads: "75% Potassium Nitrate, 15% Charcoal, 10% Sulpher." (Senator Feinstein wants to criminalize digital transmission of that information too.) I ask Brown about his email signature and he expands: "Look in the encyclopedia under Gunpowder. Oldest man made explosive." Somehow, hysteria over right wing militias and kiddie porn careened out of control and now more than 80 percent the country's senators are tripping over themselves to enact legislation that parks a truck bomb next to the constitution and which will be an enforcement nightmare, particularly since the Internet is a system that crosses borders. Are we going to extradite citizens of Denmark because their nudie pictures can be downloaded in Peoria? Perhaps the worst crime has been the news media's sliming of the Internet as a medium of ill repute. Anyone with a SLIP account knows that this is hardly the case, and the stereotyping of the medium as such threatens to shackle a promising technology. As cyberfreedom crusader John Perry Barlow observes, "My own efforts...purely academic, of course...to find porn on the Web have largely been met with 'server busy or not responding' messages every time I thought I was about to open a digital cesspool. Far from being in my face, these billboards are almost always invisible." "The reality is that children have far readier access to pornographic material at their neighborhood 7-11 than they do on the Internet," Barlow adds. "It is my perception that most kids still learn about pornography by discovering their parents' own secret caches and distributing it among themselves, on paper, not in bits, in treehouses and not through computers. I suspect this will go on being true for some time." In other words because of an exaggerated fear of corrupting the nation's children, operators of online services may soon have to sanitize their forums and dig through their customers' mailboxes to ensure that no illegal bits are surging through their data ports. And, if the government succeeds in banning encryption technology, notes San Jose, CA attorney Bob Hawn, interactive services could become less attractive as a commercial exchange system. Why would anyone want to do their banking or shopping on a system in which transactions are not private and electronic mail messages are scanned by unknown parties for prurient thoughts, he wonders. The Exon bill now moves to the House of Representatives, where, hopefully, legislators will think through the consequences of shackling the Internet.

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