Albion Monitor /Commentary

Technophobia Behind Internet Censorship

by Jay Brodell

Initial optimism is replaced by official fears

(AR) DENVER -- Fear in Congress that citizens will fill the Internet with "indecent" messages continues a long tradition in American life. That tradition is fear of technology.

Typically, when a new means of communication appears, the initial optimism is replaced by official fears.

That is true whether the new media is mass-circulation newspapers, the telegraph, moving pictures, television or even comic books.

Additionally, the more strongly a new means of communication blurs the access between childhood and adulthood, the more fearful the official response.

At the beginning of this century, motion pictures came on the scene with all the raw energy now ascribed to the Internet

The Internet is a prime target because youngsters frequently are more adept with computers than oldsters. Hence, Congress has come forth with the Communications Decency Act.

Congressional sponsors of this measure share much in common with the city fathers of New York who in 1844 forced an associate of Samuel Morse to hire a local professor to certify that experimental telegraphy lines were not a threat to public safety.

Other contemporary accounts of the new telegraph system report that the superstitious would go long distances to avoid walking under telegraph lines, particularly at night and particularly when the wind produced weird sounds from the tightly strung lines.

At nearly the same time, ministers embarked on what they called a "moral war" against James Gordon Bennett and his new mass-circulation New York Herald. In part, the ministerial concern was that Bennett was providing sensational material to stimulate the lower classes.

At the beginning of this century, motion pictures came on the scene with all the raw energy now ascribed to the Internet. And just as quickly, officials reacted against this latest erosion of public morals.

Even the famous child-defender Jane Addams criticized the movies as a place of darkness where fiends could take advantage of innocent young ladies. In New York in 1908, the mayor canceled the city licenses of all 500 nickelodeon theaters after ministers complained about the violation of the Sunday blue laws.

But the concern frequently has a political as well as moral dimension, as with the current attack on the Internet. The cheap nickelodeon provided a place of entertainment and socialization for members of the lower classes. Who knew what political philosophies might be presented in the small, stuffy, dark mini-theaters that were springing up in tenement neighborhoods?

Social historians such as Daniel J. Czitrom claim that the 1908 licensing squabble in New York and similar disputes directly led to comprehensive movie censorship that flowered for 60 years.

The fear of government intervention encouraged the development of apolitical, thin programming

When radio appeared, the users were predominately amateurs, just as users are today with the Internet. The amateur radio corps continues to exist today, but the bright hopes expressed in the early 1920s quickly were eclipsed by commercial interests.

Instead of encouraging universal access to the air, the monied interests made a Devil's bargain with the U.S. government. In exchange for government regulation, commercial broadcasters received (and continue to maintain) their monopolies on various frequencies.

The regulations the radio industry begged for in the 1920s continued into the television era and now appear as the "indecency" provision in the Communications Decency Act. The vague indecency standard originally was devised for radio communication.

The alternative for the radio industry would have been to police its own frequencies the same way suburbanites manage to keep picnickers off their lawns.

The fear of government intervention and the big-business ownership of radio encouraged the development of apolitical, thin programming, mostly of the entertainment variety. That trend continued with television because the players were the same, only the media was slightly different.

Large on-line services that are ready to exchange freedom for a quasi-monopoly are really just following a tradition that began at least with the radio industry in the early 1920s.

And then there are comic books, or more precisely as media historians characterize the situation: The Great Comic Book Scare.

Comic books, which appeared in 1938, began to come under fire by a psychiatrist who in 1948 claimed that the books caused juvenile delinquency and presented youngsters with a distorted view of the world.

The psychiatrist was Frederic Wertham, and his message was widely distributed in his 1954 book "Seduction of the Innocent" and its condensation by Reader's Digest Book Club.

Not surprisingly, Wertham had discovered that all his troubled young patients read comics, particularly crime comics. He urged criminal action against comic book publishers.

Although others branded his research and revelations as hogwash, the criticism caused a U.S. Senate hearing. The panicked comic industry responded with the Classics Illustrated series, in which great literature was reduced to comic pictures and simple dialogue.

Albion Monitor February 18, 1996 (

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