DEFENDING THE INTERNET

The following article comes from David Steinberg's "Comes Naturally" column in the Aug. 25, 1995 issue of THE SPECTATOR (weekly, available for $34 per year from PO Box 1984, Berkeley, CA 94701).

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly again'
Get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
- Bob Dylan, 1963

The people in places like Dump Truck, Iowa, may not have access to the many sexual resources of Baghdad by the Bay. But thanks first, to Madonna and now, more significantly, to the Internet and popular online services like America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy, they are not nearly as isolated in their access- to sexual material and thinking as they used to be. (As they used to be- not very long ago at all.) Call it cultural imperialism, but the sexual multiplicity of "adventurous" cities is finding its way into the American heartland as inevitably as running water, electricity, telephones, television, and home computers. Predictably, the world of home computers has become the latest venue for the never-ending battle between truth, justice, and the American Way.

The current conflict between the sexually adventurous and the sexually protective is focused on the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995, an omnibus piece of congressional legislation primarily concerned with the economic rather than the sexual issues associated with telecommunications. For the most part, this is legislation governing how TV networks, phone companies, and other electronic providers will divide the immense profits to be made from providing various forms of telecommunications to intrigued and insatiable Americans like you and me. It's the first major rewrite of this legislation in 60 years, and a lot has changed about telecommunications since the 1930s. However, as presidential election time comes rolling around, and as Bob Dole jockeys for position with Phil Gramm for the hearts and minds of the Christian Right, the issue of telecommunications regulation provides an exquisite opportunity for anti-sexual crusaders to whip sexual fear into a new level of panic.

I wrote about these issues in this column three months ago, when the first sexually prohibitionist legislation relating to the Internet, the so-called Communications Decency Act, was still before the Judiciary Committee of the Senate. This broadbrush legislation, designed to prohibit the transmission of all "indecent, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or obscene" material on the net, was added to the Senate's Telecommunications Reform Bill by an overwhelming vote of 84-16, despite some effective counter-lobbying efforts by Internet free-speech advocates such as Voters Telecommunications Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both voted for CDA.

The fear network appeared to be in full swing. Newspapers were suddenly full of stories of teenagers supposedly lured into sexual liaisons by adults in cyberspace chatrooms. No child, no computer, was safe. The juggernaut moved from the Senate to the House of Representatives, and then the most unexpected of things happened: House Speaker Newt Gingrich - not your favorite civil libertarian - came out in vocal opposition to the bill, labeling it overbroad and censorious. Everyone on the Right, Left, and Center was nothing less than shocked. What was the Good Speaker saying? One columnist in Philadelphia, Howard Altman, went so far as to suggest that the Newt must himself be some sort of cyberslut.

"I am closing my eyes," Altman fantasized. "I am seeing a vision of Newt Gingrich sitting at his desk in the Capitol Building. It is late at night. He is all alone. He is having mad, passionate sex. Not with himself. With someone else at a computer terminal, who calls herself Wicked Wanda and is entwined with Newt, thanks to the wonders of cyberspace .... I can think of few reasons why Gingrich would risk the wrath of the Right by opposing the Decency Act except this one."

I like this vision. Gingrich is just the sort of two-faced opportunist to have a cyberskeleton in his closet, and enough of a modernist to be into computers. My only problem is that it's hard to imagine where he would find the time for online sex, but if other big shot pols have time for lurid affairs, there's no reason why Newt couldn't spend a few hours here and there unwinding to a bright screen in a darkened room.

Whatever the explanation, after Gingrich's unabashed condemnation, opposition in the House to CDAs restrictions grew to such an extent that on August 4th the House attached the progressive Cox-Wyden Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act to the Telecommunications Bill by the overwhelming margin of 420-4.

The Cox-Wyden bill - named for Senators Chris Cox (R-California) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), not for its sexual expansiveness - is "something like the anti-Communications Decency Act," according to Voter Telecommunications Watch. "Its ideals promote smaller 'off your back' government, less business regulation, stronger parental control, and free speech." Congressmen Cox and Wyden say that the intent of their bill is to "clean up the Internet while preserving the efficiency and open access of the worldwide computer network." Acknowledging that there is a real potential problem with children gaining access to inappropriate sexual material through the net, Cox-Wyden proposes using parental control blocking mechanisms rather than new obscenity laws to deal with the problem.

Cox-Wyden prohibits the Federal Communications Commission from regulating online speech. It absolves online service providers and operators of online bulletin boards from liability regarding material that passes through their networks, as long as these providers make good faith efforts to screen content (which is technically all but impossible) or, more significantly, provide parents with screening software to limit use of these services by children.

Aside from Newt Gingrich's surprise support, the major turnaround between Senate and House considerations of Internet censorship has been the mobilization of an effective petitioning campaign by the net itself. For the first time since the Republicans took over mass market funding appeals in the '80s, the technological advantage is in the hands of the progressives. VTW notes in its latest BillWatch news update that it "released an alert asking the net to call their Representatives about supporting parental control as the best method of monitoring children's access to material on the Internet. You responded in spades. We're still digging out of the e-mail....420 Reps went on record, saying they had thought about the issue and supported a method of monitoring children's access to the net without endangering free speech. Many of them did so because you called and told them that's what you wanted....Every one of you that called, wrote, faxed, or drove to DC to speak to your rep should be very proud of yourself. You have made an impact and affected the way that politicians think about this issue. Democracy does behave as designed sometimes, and we hope your enthusiasm about this motivates you to vote in the next election."

Remember that when Senators and Congressmen vote about regulating the Internet, the great majority of them have only the most shadowy of notions about what the Internet is, who uses it, how it works, and what's available on it. They might as well be voting on the best way to limit the spread of Ebola virus. When Senator Exon produced an overwhelming volume of graphic offensive images downloaded from the net and effectively shocked the other senators into a sense of moral panic, no one understood the difference between material available for purchase from porn marketers and the kind of material that anybody's son or daughter might come across accidentally while netsurfing, or be sent by a potential predator or molester. When the Supreme Court eventually addresses this issue - as it must - it will be an even more aged and computer-illiterate club evaluating a medium that is basically the turf of young people.

This is one of the issues that the protective adults of America seem to find the most frightening about the Internet: that their children understand and move freely in a world they can barely comprehend, let alone control. First it was rock 'n' roll; now it's the Internet. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- dubbed "Cyberporn: The Scope of the Problem, the State of the Technology, and the Need for Congressional Action" -- this issue of the children being way more savvy than the parents was raised again and again. "Children today have grown up with the computer, and I can safely say they are more computer literate than the majority of their parents," worries one mother of two from Maryland. "Children are usually more adept than adults at operating computers," echoes Dee Jepsen, Executive Director of the anti-cyberporn group called "Enough is Enough."

Given the culture gap between most older people and a youth-oriented technology and marketplace that is accelerating every week, it is not surprising that there is much fear and ignorance available to be exploited by the Radical Right. What VTW and other Internet free speech advocates are trying to accomplish, apparently with real success, is to offer information to lawmakers so that they can begin to separate genuine concerns from inflated paranoias.

"HR1978 [Cox-Wyden] had been available and well-discussed for weeks. A free demonstration of the 'parental control' software discussed in HR1978 was done in mid-July for Congress by members of the Interactive Working Group. Every effort was made by sponsors Cox and Wyden to ensure that supporting votes were well-educated votes on this issue." The net defenders seem to be working under Martin Luther King's praiseworthy dictum, "the truth will make you free." For once, reason and clarity triumphed over ignorance and fear.

Despite the happy turn of events, however, the cyberporn issue is far from settled. First of all the House bill, in addition to Cox-Wyden, includes directly contradictory language (introduced at the last minute without debate, according to VTW that would censor the net after all, along the lines of Robert Dole's pending Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act. It remains to be seen whether the Cox-Wyden provisions, the Dole language, or the Draconian Communications Decency Act will come out of the House-Senate conference on the telecommunications bill. (VTW says it is "optimistic about our odds in this process.") Furthermore, President Clinton is threatening to veto the entire bill in any case, because he considers it overly lenient with regard to the regulation of telecommunications monopolies.

For people who would like to keep up to date on these issues, there are a number of online resources available. To get on the distribution list for Bill-Watch, send e-mail to listproc@vtw.org with "subscribe vtw-announce Firstname Lastname" in the subject line. To receive the latest version of Bill-Watch, e-mail vtw@vtw.org with "send billwatch" in the subject line. And of course you can always e-mail me, eronat@aol.com.

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