GREETINGS, MEAT, AND POTATOES
Welcome everyone! The best I can wish to you all is Happy March, since there’s not much in the way of holidays for the next few weeks (Happy St. Patrick’s Day?). Anyway, last month I openly admitted that my topic and content might have been just a tad below par. When talking about a steady diet of meat and potatoes, I like to think of my February column as a burger and fries. While I don’t consider this month’s offering to be filet mignon and potatoes au gratin, I think that this is a slightly more, well, intellectual topic and one that I hope I approached in a slightly more intellectual tone. Maybe I’ll call this steak and eggs… wait a minute, that’s not right…
Anyway, I can’t guarantee that all of my information is accurate or up-to-date; Dammit, Jim, I’m an opinionated columnist, not a roving reporter!
Seriously, I did some light research on the subject, but this is still mostly my own feelings and perceptions. I’ll quit with this overdone introduction now, and let you get to the “meat and potatoes” of the article. 🙂
THE (FIRST AMENDMENT) RIGHT OF WAY IN CYBERSPACE
The First Amendment is one of the most important parts of the American Constitution. It grants us our rights of free speech, free practice of religion, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceful assembly, and the power of petition. This amendment is applied to every one of our lives every day, and its guidelines rule over our everyday activities, whether they be for business or for pleasure.
It’s not that surprising, then, to find that this Amendment also has the potential to be one of the most controversial amendments of them all. You can see incidents all the time that push these freedoms to their limits. Rap stars, heavy metal groups, and other musicians use explicit lyrics and obscenities in their music. The television industry continues to become more and more “realistic” by adding violent and/or sexual content in programming.
Movies are being made which must carry NC-17 ratings because of their racy content (not mentioning any names, of course…). I’m not saying that this is either good or bad, nor am I going to try to press my views upon you.
Such a matter is up to the individual to decide for him or her self, and in cases in which things become too controversial or overblown, it is for the courts to decide. At any rate, I am simply trying to point out that our First Amendment freedoms are constantly being exercised to their limits and quite often come under attack when some people think things are getting out of hand.
However, there is one area of life today that doesn’t seem to get noticed as much for its First Amendment controversies. It’s not that it doesn’t receive attention in the media, and it also is not because it’s not important. It is increasingly becoming a large part of our everyday lives, and many people see it becoming an essential part of the twenty-first century. However, except for people who have had experience with it, little is discussed or even known about censorship, free speech, and free expression in this medium; and most of what is mentioned is from word-of-mouth and public conceptions, be they true or false. Even among people in the know, it is sometimes considered “hush-hush,” something that is not discussed or worried about very often. Yet now it is becoming too big of an issue to ignore, and people must wake up to the fact before it is too late.
I won’t talk in metaphors any longer; I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about by now anyway. Yes, the topic is censorship and free speech.
And the area of life, the medium that is being affected in this instance, is cyberspace.
I recently prepared a speech on the First Amendment rights of the average American citizen. Some of the high points of my research are listed below:
* The federal government can not restrict any religion from constructing a structure (either a building or monument) as a testament of their faith. Likewise, the government must allow each religious group the freedom to conduct worship services in their places of worship. This is to remain in effect at all times unless the faith and its practices violate federal law. A prime example of this is found in the Mormon faith: the Constitution says that it is OK for Mormons to believe that is all right to have more than one wife, yet federal law prohibits the practice.
* Unless the words can be classified as “fighting words,” seditious speech, unnecessary obscenity, or slander, the government can not reprimand an individual for what he or she says in public. In private conversations, such as those in a one-to-one phone call, anything can be said. If such a conversation is taped legally under the fourth amendment, a person may be held accountable for what is said in the conversation if it is called upon in a court of law.
* Likewise, members of the media can state their opinions in either spoken or written form in accordance with the above guidelines.
* People may freely assemble in a public place either in support or in opposition to an issue of concern, etc. This is true as long as the assembly remains peaceable. As soon as violence, unrest, etc. occurs, members of the law enforcement have the right to break up the assembly using the necessary means.
* People may sign a public petition, again in either favor or opposition to an issue. If the required number of people sign the petition, they have a right to have their grievances heard in the presence of a form of government. Petitions may also be used for other purposes, such as in the case of the referendum, recall, and initiative powers some states use on election ballots, or to nominate political candidates for office.
These freedoms have come under fire and have been controversial many, many times in the past in the “real world.” All of these freedoms I listed above have been cause for numerous Supreme Court cases, many of which were then instrumental in upholding the rights of the people. I won’t go into detail, but Emerson v. Board of Education and Zenger v. New York are two prime examples.
But now a new, largely unexplored and untested form of expression has reared its head to challenge the limits of the first amendment. The Internet is one of the most unique forms of communication to come along since the invention of the telephone itself. Using a private phone line, a computer user that is using a personal computer in the safety and privacy of his or her own house can then call a server and connect to computers all over the world. It is private – a private computer, a private phone line, sometimes private conversations, and private email. But at the same time it is public – easily accessible file libraries, public forums and chat areas where dozens of people can talk, public message boards, and public news groups and mailing lists. So, do net surfers have the rights they would normally have in a private phone call, or are they restricted to the rules and regulations of talking at large in public? Newsweek likens the situation to treating the Internet as either a tabloid-laden newsstand or a network television broadcast. What about software and other files? I can give anyone a disk containing most anything, as long the disk is not pirated and the recipient is of the proper age (in some cases). But do I have the right to send those same files to someone over the Internet? I haven’t even begun to touch on the tip of the iceberg, but I’m sure most of you can think of other examples by yourselves, and many of you can probably come up with with better ones than the ones I just gave.
The most controversy around the Internet arises in the usage of indecent language and pornography. The more “user-friendly” and “family-oriented” portions of the Internet, such as the commercial online services, have begun to respond to this. Both eWorld and America Online (among possible others) restrict the usage of foul language in some chat areas. I know that eWorld, for one, posts a message on your screen before you can enter the teenage chat area saying that indecent language will not be tolerated. Users can be disconnected if they do not comply with the guidelines. In another example, CompuServe recently banned all pornographic material from its software libraries, complying with a request from Germany.
Just recently (in the time between when I started writing this article a few weeks ago and now), a new development has arisen. The new telecom bill passed the United States Congress, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This gives our country our first revamping of communications standards in decades. Although the bill also affects competition among the phone companies, lifts rate regulations on cable television, and requires the installation of violence-and-sex blocking chips in new televisions, the most controversial of the areas affected by the bill is the Internet.
The part of the bill in question here is the Communications Decency Act.
This “friendly” little peace of legislation, the brainchild of the honorable Senator J. James Exon from Nebraska, would potentially penalize anyone who “utters a nasty word in cyberspace.” And when I say penalize, I mean penalize-up to $250,000 and time in prison. The same applies to anyone who makes other forms of indecency – especially pornography – available to minors.
Now the fun starts. You couldn’t have expected this to come into effect quietly, now, could you? Network television executives say that they are willing to sue in order to stop the implementation of the V-chip that blocks “bad” television shows, and several groups – most notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – are taking the issue of the Communications Decency Act to court. Let the battle begin…
Citizens on the Internet are up in arms, too, not just in the courtroom, but on the Web as well. Some of the most popular Web sites changed their background colors to black as a sign of mourning, in reference to what has become known in the computer world as Black Thursday, the day of the passing of the telecommunications bill. Chains of email letters to the same effect and the use of blue ribbons were also common.
My first impression to all of this was that the feelings of the people in cyberspace were resoundingly negative towards the whole thing. So, I set out to find out exactly what the opinions of fellows cyber-surfers were.
A quick scan of some newsgroups and chat rooms gave me what I thought I would find: general negativity towards the bill and all other recent developments in efforts to regulate or censor the net. However, I was surprised to find some people who vigorously supported censoring the net. Of course, I guess I should have expected this. There was obviously going to be SOMEONE out there who liked the idea, and this sect was very quick and efficient in making their opinions known.
The scary part, I realized, was that I found myself in agreement with some of what they had to say. They made sense. For example, CompuServe was easily within their limits in doing what they did; they’re a commercial online service and can do what they please with their own file libraries. Perhaps it is even for the better – the Internet already has plenty of explicit file offering readily available at numerous sites. Maybe we need an environment where we can be assured that what we’re getting is “wholesome,” and what better place than one of the “user-friendly” online services, which are presumably more for the family and the casual user than the hard-core net surfer.
I next set out to find opinions on the telecom bill itself. This was not hard to do. Again, there were many opponents of the bill. They made the arguments that vague wording in the bill may lead to the discussion of such things as “The Catcher in the Rye” to be censored. Others argued that women may have a harder time finding information about such topics as abortion, birth control, or breast cancer. And of course, there was the general argument that the Internet is worldwide, and no single country or group – be it the United States, Germany, or anyone else – had the right to regulate such a worldwide entity.
The supporters of the bill had their own arguments. The say that the bill is not intended to discourage the discussion of current events, relevant topics, or education-related or “culture” items. They say net citizens are being childish, refusing to conform to decency guidelines which television and radio have followed for years. Some governments have even gone so far as to see the Internet as a threat to national security, and must be regulated for safety purposes.
Now being a teenager, I was also curious as to how people my age on the net felt about the issue. So, the natural place for me to look was the teenage hangout on eWorld, better known as Youth Central. Who would have guessed – there was a survey being conducted about censorship! The final results of that survey were:
*results*: Should the government be involved in censoring the ‘net?
no — 51 responses — 87.9%
yes — 7 responses — 12.1%
Hey, wow! That’s quite a landslide! In showing the “usual” teenage “attitude,” the respondents listed several reasons for their “no” votes.
Some listed the First Amendment, as I have in the beginning of this very article. Others said that individual services and sites should be able to decide for themselves what they want or do not want to carry, and that there shouldn’t be any “blanket” restrictions. Another popular response, and one of my favorites, was that if people don’t like it, don’t go there. On the other hand, don’t spoil the fun for other people who feel differently than you do.
Well, after all of that, I felt ready to form an opinion of my own. Not just a blind, biased opinion, either, but an educated one. Not that my opinion is correct, nor must it agree with yours, but I’m going to close this article with my own feelings about censorship on the net.
First, let me say that should every sex site be deleted from the Web and every foul word be censored in every mailing and chat session, I won’t notice a huge difference in my net wanderings. By nature I don’t use an abundance of foul language, and I’m not a sex maniac, either. Granted, I’m your average, everyday, testosterone-fueled male teen, and I look forward to trips to the beach and the annual swimsuit issues. I’ve peeked at some of the alt.sex postings, and even (gasp!) visited a Web site where scantily-clad women were the norm. However, I’ve given up reading the newsgroup, and I don’t have any sex sites on my hot lists. I don’t see the need, personally.
But that’s not to say I support the idea of censoring it all, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that such things should be made available as long as there is an audience for them. Whether or not you participate in such goings-on is the choice of the individual, and not one the government should make for you. Sure, child pornography and the like should be taken care of swiftly and with an iron fist – that stuff is illegal no matter what medium you’re talking about. They can’t do it in the Calvin Klein ads, and they shouldn’t be able to do on the Internet. But other than that, hey, it’s fair game.
People argue that children shouldn’t be exposed to indecent material, and with the growing number of young people with access to the net, it should be made impossible for those users to access “bad places.” Come on, folks. Are you so naive that you think that half of the kids in your junior high school couldn’t get their hands on a Playboy if they wanted to? That their ever-growing vocabulary would make most churchgoers blush?
I don’t see why any of the growing number of security software programs that allow parents or administrators to regulate what sites can be accessed from their own personal computers or networks can’t do the job. These programs let the concerned individuals have their cake, and allow those who aren’t concerned eat theirs, too.
However, I think that the commercial services do have the prerogative to censor their own libraries, and to a certain extent I think they should. As I finish this article, CompuServe has agreed to restore access to over 200 newsgroups with sexually explicit material. It will also add parental-control filters. Sounds likes a great compromise to me. Kudos to CompuServe – in my mind that’s the way it should be done.
Yet once again I stress that the final decision should be up to the individual. At any rate, leave the government out of this.
And that’s why I, like so many others, emailed a few all-black messages to some of my cyberfriends. After all, I don’t have my own web page to darken.
Now, I’m going to cite some of my sources, and some other housekeeping things.
Buzz Burbank, the newsguy on the syndicated Don and Mike radio show (“what’s up, Buzz? Tell me what’s happenin’!”), and wherever he gets his material.
Various Associated Press and Rueters clippings.
Finally, Youth Central on eWorld. The folks at the YC have asked me to mention that they’re going to the Web soon, too, whether it’s censored or not, and soon everyone with WWW access can be part of the fun at YC. Email should go to Alex@eWorld.com.
And, of course, some postings on various newsgroups, message boards, and some statements in a few chat rooms. All screen names and real names were left unmentioned to preserve anonymity.
I apologize for my overuse of “fad” terms such as cyberspace in this article. Quite cliche, if I do say so myself. I’ll try harder to avoid those dreaded words next time. 🙂
All products, companies, and other copyrighted materials in this article are the properties of the individual copyright holders. No infringement intended.
This article is mine, but feel free to copy it and use it elsewhere if you so desire, as long as you mention I wrote it. Thanks.
There. That’s all for this month. Wow! Whether you liked it or not, I went and got cerebral on you. Sort of. Maybe. 🙂 Either way, the Wall will be back next month, as I take a look at my first year in cyberspace (there’s that word again!), what’s happened, where I’m headed, what I like, what I don’t, and overall just many more random musings related in some way or another to the Macintosh/Internet experience.
See you then!