Alarmed by a TV show, Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska) introduced legislation earlier this year to control content on the Internet. Matters became worse after Time magazine published a sensationalist cover story claiming vast amounts of pornography could be found on the net. The charges simply weren't true, and were quickly disproven by the Internet community.
But like junkyard dogs smelling blood, a pack of midwestern Senators charged to introduce their own "decency" legislation. The Hotwired web site offers a good summary of these events, and another organization provides the text of various bills as they evolved. Still another group has a list of frequently asked questions about the legislation.
As we described in our first issue, the chances of a child stumbling upon on-line pornography are virtually impossible. Still, it is important that parents supervise younger children while roaming the Internet; we recommend all parents read this fact-sheet about options available for parential control.]
Censors and monopolists have won every battle over the future of the Internet
one last chance before we lose the Net. If American citizens write, call, and fax the President now and urge him to veto the telecommunications deregulation bill, we might not lose an opportunity to revitalize the democratic process and grow hundreds of thousands of small Net-based businesses. And we might not hand over a nascent native industry (the dominant industry of the twenty first century) to international competitors.
The effects of this legislation (S 652) go far beyond the Internet, reaching into every aspect of American lives, undoubtedly influencing the shape of the democracy our children will grow up in. This telecommunications bill encourages the concentration of ownership of all news, entertainment, and communication media, institutes censorship provisions that will put online service providers out of business, cut off universities from the worldwide network, and turn American scientists, engineers, educators, entrepreneurs into a nation of Net-morons in an increasingly online world. This bill allows rates to rise too high and too fast, is generous with megacorporations and stingy with education, and it completely ignores the widening gap between information-rich and information-poor.
Through months of committee debates and decisions, censors and monopolists have won every battle over the future of the Internet. By shamelessly exploiting legislators' and citizens' ignorance of the nature of the Internet, a small group who are intent upon imposing their brand of morality on everyone else, are about to silence a potentially powerful medium for citizen-to-citizen communication, cripple American industries trying to compete in global markets, and create a Federal bureaucracy with the power to determine what is decent for citizens to say.
Congress will almost certainly send to the President a telecommunications reform bill that can send people to jail for two years and fine them $100,000 for mentioning the seven words that are forbidden from radio and television. Mention of abortion, condoms or safe sex are almost certain to be the next items forbidden. American universities, on the advice of their attorneys will turn off all Internet access for their students as soon as the law goes into effect.
Every desktop connected to the Net is a printing press, a place of assembly, a broadcasting station
citizens don't have to be electrical engineers to understand the nature of the new communication media. But we do need to have the truth told and the complexities explained, and that has not happened. Computer BBSs, e-mail, citizen networks, mean that you no longer have to own a press to benefit from freedom of the press: every desktop connected to the Net is a printing press, a place of assembly, a broadcasting station. The idea that ordinary taxpayers should have the power to publish eyewitness reports, argue policy, distribute information threatens the old power structures. Politicians and corporations whose fortunes are based on control of mass media fear their power will erode to the citizens.
Legislators have failed to uphold their oath to defend the Constitution by pursuing such nonsense as flag-burning amendments to the Constitution while at the same time destroying the liberties that flag symbolizes. Internet censorship legislation is not about pornography on the Internet (which will easily move offshore). It's about who will have the power and control to broadcast words, images, and sounds, to everyone else. Citizens? Or cartels?
A trillion-dollar pie is being cut up. We, the people, are getting cut out. Speak up. We still have the right to communicate with the President and demand that he hold the line. Tell him to send this back to Congress. We've been living for sixty years under the rules set forth in the Communications Act of 1934. Now the Congress is changing the rules again, determining the way our nation and its industries will communicate, educate, and do business for decades to come. We deserve better than this. Tell Clinton to tell Congress to try again, to cut the citizens of this country into the deal, and to keep their hands off the Bill of Rights.
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Howard Rheingold is the author of best-sellers Virtual Reality, The Virtual Community, editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, and one of the net pioneers.
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