Monday, June 24, 1996

Week of 06/24/1996

Politics of FEAR
The CDA Decision
- By David Matthews 2

On June 12th, a panel of three federal judges made an important, and somewhat controversial, decision regarding free speech on the Internet. In their ruling against the Communications Decency Act, they declared that the Internet to be a form of speech that should receive at least as much protection from government intrusion as would printed speech.

The CDA was a part of the much larger and more comprehensive Telecommunications deregulation act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Ironically, while the Telecom act was designed to help liberate other forms of communications from government regulations, the CDA would have placed draconian regulations on Internet providers by limiting the content of speech to that of children. And to back up this measure, huge fines and felony imprisonment would be hung over not only Internet users but also Internet Service providers like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. If fully enacted, the Internet would have been THE most regulated form of communication since the invention of the printing press.

Sound insane, doesn’t it? Why would a presidential administration that considers themselves to be computer-friendly be willing to place such tyrannical limitations on that technology?

The answer to that lies in one word- FEAR.

According to those who supported and lobbied for the CDA, these measures were essential to protect children from the "barrage" of indecent images they would be prone to see. The supporters of the CDA- which included the special interest groups from the religious right such as "Focus on the Family" and the Christian Coalition- considered the Internet to be full of pedophiles and pornography. And to back up their argument they used a study published by Marty Rimm which declared that pornographic images infested most of the Internet. A study that was later denounced by Rimm’s own advisors as being grossly inaccurate.

It was an easy sell for them. After all approximately 80% of the households in America don’t have access to computers, according to one study. Most parents are not only computer-illiterate, but also computer-ignorant. But they hear their kids talk about computers and instantly they are concerned about their safety.

And if it was easy to sell the concept of fear to parents, it was even easier to sell the same concept to members of Congress. The sponsor of the CDA, retiring Senator Jim Exon of Nebraska, sweetened the sell even more by waiving around the infamous "Blue Book" of pornographic images he claimed to have acquired from the Internet. Thanks in no small part to his efforts, the CDA amendment to the Telecom bill was passed overwhelmingly in the Senate.

But by the time the Telecom bill reached the House, there was resistance to the bill. Protests arose from the computer users and civil-libertarians as to HOW the CDA would be applied. As a result, a much more computer-friendly alternative to the CDA was passed by the House. However the forces of fear were quick to bastardize this version and replace it with the CDA. (Not surprising, especially since the man who chaired the joint conference committee to resolve the House and Senate versions was none other than Senator Exon himself!) With the urging of President Clinton, who was quick to sign onto the concept of "protecting families" as a way to demonstrate his "family values" in an election year, the Telecom bill sailed through both houses of Congress, and then to his signature.

Once signed into law, however, the battle turned to the courts. It was there that the hard-sell campaign of fear about the Internet evaporated, as the three judges learned not only how the Internet worked, but how it DIDN’T work.

The three judges weren’t "bombarded" with adult materials, as the fear-mongers warned was happening to children who go online. In fact, they learned that they had to actually search to find such items.

Neither the plaintiffs (which included the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Center for Democracy and Technology, America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe, Microsoft, and Netcom- to name but a minute fraction of the over 45,000 organizations and individuals) nor the Department of Justice denied that there were materials deemed inappropriate for children on the Internet. Nor did the plaintiffs try to defend obscene materials or materials containing child pornography- both of which are already illegal and are being prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Instead, the plaintiffs argued, quite successfully, that the CDA had a broad-reaching impact on the Internet as a whole, not just one fraction of it. Serious issues such as the prevention of AIDS, or discussions of rape, would be stifled because they would be deemed "indecent." Libraries that were considering making books available on the Internet would have to do so in fear of a prosecutor in some corner of the world that would deem certain books to be "indecent." Non-profit organizations that wished to discuss adult subject matters would be forced to make such discussions on the Internet a commercial venture to avoid prosecution as part of the CDA’s "exemptions"- essentially nullifying their own status as a non-profit organization.

And the only measure of "protection" that the Department of Justice could provide to such groups was their assertion that at least under the Clinton Administration the CDA would not be widely enforced, but applied only to specific situations. Mind you, there would be no such guarantees with any future administrations.

Then there was the strength of filtering software already available for parents to screen out objectionable materials. SurfWatch, one of the plaintiffs in the case, demonstrated that their software was capable of screening out objectionable materials irregardless if the site came from across the country or around the world. And even one witness for the government had to admit under oath that his own search for adult materials as part of the defense’s case would not have been possible if he was using SurfWatch.

It was easy to see, once the facts of the case came forth, that the Communications Decency Act was a poorly-written and overly tyrannical piece of legislation. And the judges reflected that in their decision.

But once the judges made their decision, the forces of fear were quick to denounce them as being hand-picked puppets of the ACLU. (Never mind that two of the three judges were appointed by President George Bush.) They looked forward to an appeal in the Supreme Court- a court that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia himself has said is comprised of people who are "out of touch" with society. Perhaps that also best fits the attitude of these fear-mongers..

In either case, the truth about the CDA has been what it’s opponents have been saying all along- the best way to prevent unwanted content to your children lies NOT with tyrannical legislation, but rather with parental control and guidance. Parents that are concerned about what their children get into need to be informed and educated about what the Internet can and can’t do. It CAN be a tool for adults and children. It CAN’T be a replacement for parental responsibility.

No comments: