Monday, April 15, 1996

Week of 04/15/1996


Note: The story you are about to read could become true. The names have been changed to warn the innocent. (Feel free to hum "dum-di-dum-dum...")

This is the Net. The Internet. To most people this is a world that exists only as a series of electronic tones and pulses. But to others, it is a world of information, interaction, and opportunity. Some weave their way through it like a spider's WEB, while others glide through unaided. Once this was a wild and reckless Net, but not any more. That's where I come in.

My name is Frag. D. Frag. I carry a badge.

It's Tuesday, October 3rd, 2000, and I'm assigned to the Cyberspace Morality Division. It's a busy assignment, filled with all the slime and indecencies that make most people cringe. But it has to be done and right now I've got the job. My partner's name is Pack Bell. My supervisor is Righteous Indignation.

It's nine-fifteen when my partner briefs me about today's assignment. Female user named Miss Prudence filed a complaint that she received an offensive E-mail letter while on America Deadline. The complaint included a copy of the letter, and a downloaded picture she considered to be offensive. We requested a live session with her in ADL's chat room.

Nine-thirty. Miss Prudence joins in on ADL's private chat board.

"Miss Prudence?" I typed.

"Please call me Prude," she replied.

"Miss Prude, you filed a complaint with our office about an E-mail letter you received yesterday afternoon. Is that correct?"

"Why yes I did. I usually don't get too many letters, so I'm glad any time I get one."

"Yes ma'am."

"I mean, they just don't treat us system advisors like they used to. There used to be a time when these users would give us a little more respect."

"Yes ma'am."

"I mean back when I was working with Plotigy no one would ever question why I would censor certain board messages. They knew it was a family network and there were limits."

"Yes ma'am."

"You know, when they passed those computer decency laws I thought these people would get the message and stay off-line."

"Wish they did, ma'am. So were you the only one who got this letter?"

"Oh goodness no! I was one of dozens of users. Every single one of them got the same letter and the same indecent picture."

She had sent me the address list from the letter. There were over fifty users listed, all from various parts of the Net. I looked at the downloaded picture. It was a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding a bullwhip resembling a snake and using the torch to defend herself.

"So you tell me what you consider to be obscene about the picture."

"Well, the way she's drawn. You can clearly see her chest through her clothes. I've seen the real Statue of Liberty and she's never had that kind of figure. And that snake. It just looks like one of..."

"What Miss Prude?"

"Well, one of those... you know, those P-H symbols."

Instantly I knew what she meant. Even in the more progressive nets like ADL, it was still a crime to say the word "phallic." I thanked her and told her we'd look further into the case.

Ten-fifteen. Pack and I checked in with the Sysops for all the groups the E-mail was posted in. Each one of them reported similar complaints from users who received the letter.

Ten-thirty. We surfed to a small system called FreeNet, where the letter originated. The system was filled with information that would get a person shut out of most networks. We found several graphics available of women dressed in swimsuits, pictures of old aspirin and beer advertisements, uncensored bulletin boards, and texts critical of the government. All in clear violation of Internet decency laws.

Eleven a.m. I traveled to the real address of the FreeNet. I brought along Lap Top as backup in case Pack had anything more for me at the station. We arrived at 1995 Exon Parkway, apartment 314. A man answered the door.

"You Jefferson? Tom Jefferson?"

"Who want's to know?" he asked.

"Frag. D. Frag. Cyberspace Morality Division. This is Lap Top, he's with me."

He let us in. The house was old, filled with a combination of antique furniture and modern technology.

"So what's this about?" he asked.

"I understand you're the system operator for the FreeNet. Is that right?"

"Yes, so?"

"So we've received several IMC complaints from users who got E-mail letters from your system."


"Internet Morality Code. The code set by major Internet operators following passage of the computer decency laws five years ago. According to the complaints, letters and an obscene picture were E-mailed to various users through all the major networks. Threatening words such as 'Give me liberty or give me death' were used in the letter."

"Oh! You mean my partner Pat Henry. He's the one who's been sending out advertisements to some of the users. He gets around pretty much in the system."

"Just the facts please. You are the sole system operator of this net, is that correct?"

"Yes, but.."

"Then you must realize that under the IMC you're held responsible for the conduct of your users."

"You mean that just because I'm the Sysop I have to be held accountable for whatever the users do? That's insane!"

"No, that's the law. Now if you will, show me to your system."

He showed me his office setup. It was filled with symbols of freedom. Slogans such as "Free the Net!" and "Free speech is a right, not a privilege!" lined his walls. There were even books on encryption on his desk. All considered illegal computer paraphernalia under revised Internet morality laws. While the subject was busy calling his lawyer on his cellular phone, I had Lap search his computer files.

"Mr. Jefferson, according to your own files you haven't registered your desktop scanner with the authorities yet. Could you explain why?"

"How did you get your hands on my records? That's a violation of my Fourth Amendment rights. You have a warrant?"

"Mr. Jefferson, I don't need a warrant where your computer files are concerned. Privacy laws were voided just after the IMC was passed. Your Fourth Amendment rights don't cover computer use. And you still need to register your scanner with the Commercial Scanner Authority following the passage of the Computer Copyright Act of 1998."

"That's unconstitutional. I can take a photograph and run it through an ordinary copier without checking in with some government bureaucracy."

"That's right. And you can send this distorted picture of Lady Liberty through the regular mail service without any problems either. But once you put them in your computer and send it through the Internet it becomes a crime. A crime that you violated."

"But that's in violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. The people have a right to express themselves without fear of persecution from the government."

That's when I decided to level with him. "Apparently you don't get it yet, Mr. Jefferson, but you have no rights in the Internet. None. Maybe once you did, but that was before Congress decided the only rights people had were those they permitted. It was only when they started to listen to those users who wanted a safe and clean Internet that those rights you profess were removed."

I handcuffed the suspect as Pack faxed over a copy of the revised Miranda rights. "It's a shame really," I said as I looked down at the collection of contraband evidence.

"How's that?"

"With all this equipment and information at your command, you could have stopped Congress from regulating the Net. Why didn't you?"

"Well I thought Congress wouldn't take those cybercensors seriously. Then when it was passed, I hoped the courts would have enough brains to throw the law out."

"That was your first mistake. You trusted the government to know better. Now you'll get the chance to see how much faith the courts have in you."

On October 10, cyber-trial was held in the Helms room of the Internet Judicial Authority, for the Internet system. The defendant Thomas Jefferson was found guilty of twenty violations of the Internet Decency Code, including the operation of a computer system with reckless abandonment, posting of images and messages considered offensive, and declared a menace to the computer community. He was fined $100,000 and ten years for each offense. He is now serving time at the Gates Correctional Institution, where he has to recheck old income tax forms using an outdated TRS-80.

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