Questioning Technology: Internet Censorship

Many Americans -- including an alarming number of elected public officials -- simply cannot tolerate free speech. To them, the First Amendment is more about protecting a corporation's right to engage in unfettered commerce than in an individual's right to speak or publish as he or she pleases. Some recent comments by the people's representatives are revealing and frightening. Take Senator Diane Feinstein of California. This Democrat who some call a liberal showed her true colors at a recent subcommittee hearing focused on the Internet. When the subject turned to the dissemination of on-line material about bomb making, Feinstein couldn't deal with the notion that the First Amendment allows distribution of "information...that teaches people to kill." Therefore, Feinstein concluded, any information about bombs delivered over the Internet should be targeted for censorship because that information is "pushing the envelope of free speech to extremes." It didn't matter to Feinstein (if she even knew) that detailed bomb making information is available to anyone in the Encyclopedia Britannica or in a number of mainstream publications at any good public library. It didn't matter that a booklet called the "Blaster's Handbook," available for free from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forestry Service, has detailed instructions for an ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bomb like the one used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Fortunately, Feinstein went off the deep end. Such information "isn't what this country is all about," she said. "Excuse me, Senator, that is what this country is all about," retorted Jerry Berman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology. "Are you proposing we outlaw that kind of speech for bookstores?" Feinstein, at a loss for words, just scowled. Another Democratic statesman, Senator Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin, also showed his sensitivity to America's most precious constitutional right. If Americans "really knew about the dark back alleys of the Internet...they would be shocked," said Kohl, who went on to suggest that laws be passed to limit access to the Internet. "If we have the technology to get kids on the Internet we should have the technology to get them off," he proclaimed. Those who would censor the Internet are attempting to use two issues -- protection of children from pornography and public safety -- to gain public support for their efforts. In reality, both are non-issues. Children can be shielded from on-line porn through software filters and parental guidance and virtually everything disseminated on the Net is already available somewhere else in printed form. These "hot button" political issues, I suspect, are really a subterfuge for something far deeper. The fact is the Internet is a threat to any institution -- government, corporate or otherwise -- that tries to enforce conformity of human thought. Such conformity of thought was easily manipulated by the corporate/government cooperative that ran (and still runs) traditional "old" media in the United States. New media, on the other hand, is a different animal. Ideas and opinions that could never pass through the filters of old media are now swiftly passed into broad circulation over the Internet regardless of political borders or attempted controls. In its current wild, raw form, the Internet represents free speech in its purest sense. So far, there are no corporate monopolies on the Net. There are no preferred locations on the tuning dial. My home page is just as accessible as the CBS or Time-Warner home page. Any individual can broadcast an uncensored message via e- mail to millions. For all the hyper-talk by Gore and Gingrich about the benefits of the "information superhighway," the truth is the Internet will eventually turn and bite them like a snake. As information expert Bill Frezza recently wrote in Interactive Age: "This highway doesn't lead to Washington. Networked computers and the torrent of information they carry are inherently decentralized, destabilizing, and uncontrollable -- a virtual Ho Chi Minh trail of cyber-insurgency." The Internet naturally sucks away power from those who seek to consolidate it and amplifies the powers of the individual. Make no mistake about it, the Net is quickly becoming the government's worst enemy and the survival instincts of the bureaucrats and congressional demagogues are forcing them to try to control it. It began with the pathetic attempt in the United States Senate to control on-line communications. The Senate would criminalize the transmission of constitutionally protected speech, including private communications between consenting individuals. It would violate privacy rights by protecting computer system administrators who take steps to ensure their networks are not used to transmit prohibited content, even if those steps include reading all e-mail messages. Even Feinstein got her prohibition of bomb speech tacked on to the legislation. It seems that those of us who cherish freedom are destined to fight wars periodically to reassert our rights. That time may again be upon us as we defend the "dark back alleys of the Internet." This time, however, the war over the First Amendment may be the toughest ever because the enemy is right here at home.

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