Monday, August 12, 1996

Week of 08/12/1996

Free Speech… at $180 for six months
How Congress thinks free speech on the Internet should be- for profit.
- by David Matthews 2

There are a few pet peeves I have about this electronic realm we call the Internet. One of them has to do with the very foundation of the Internet- information without borders or barriers. The very concept of free speech we as Americans have always yearned to achieve.

But now it seems to really practice free speech on the Internet, the electronic epitome of the First Amendment, must come at a cost.

Speech on the Internet is being restricted, not just by the politicians in Washington- who apparently believe content stronger than a Mickey Mouse cartoon should be a capitol felony and a crime against humanity- but also by the Internet service providers themselves. And this has led to a new and growing kind of Internet sites- the Subscription Site.

Simply put, a Subscription Site is a site on the Internet that you pay for with a regular influx of your money, in addition to all the other costs you have to pay just to stay on the Internet. These sites usually require you to enter a user name and a password before being allowed access to the rest of that site.

Politicians tolerate such sites because they foolishly believe that only adults would be willing to pay extra to access certain sites, and thus would exclude children from accessing those areas where they shouldn’t be in the first place. Internet Service Providers, on the other hand, prefer such sites because it limits the amount of people that access that particular site, and thus saves a strain on their servers.

I have to wonder, though, if it is worth reducing the concept of Free Speech on the Internet to either the level of the children, or put it up for sale? Consider the following arguments when making up your own mind:

First, subscription sites are NOT a deterrent for children. The politicians who believe it to be so are as naive as they are ignorant. The only limitation of a subscription site is who is willing to pay. Most of the subscription sites offer payment via credit card. How hard, then, would it be for a child to get their parents’ credit card number? How many parents have given copies of their credit cards to their children? And how many parents have co-signed credit card applications with their minor children? A person’s credit card information does not include that person’s age, so what is to stop a child from LYING about their age to a computer program that cannot differentiate between a child and an adult?

Second, there are some organizations that cannot turn their Internet sites into subscription sites because they are NON-PROFIT organizations. By definition they cannot make a profit, or even give the appearance of making a profit, without risking losing it’s tax-exempt status. So, for instance, the American Cancer Society could not have a website up that talks about things like breast cancer on the fear that some 12 year-old "Bevis and Butt-head" wannabe could access it just as easily as a 15 year-old girl who would have some serious questions about the lump in her breast before she saw a doctor.

Of course, the politicians would then suggest an "adult verification" service, and there are a handful of such services available on the Internet. But again, the argument would still stand that such "adult verification" services would not be able to differentiate between an adult and a minor. So what would be the alternative, then? The only alternative would be to shut up and stay off the Internet.

So what WOULD be the alternative? How would free speech be measured? Would it be measured by how much people would be willing to pay for that speech? Or would it be measured by concepts that transcend finances and instead embraces ideas? Freedom does indeed come with a price, but that price is responsibility, not a blind subscription only to those who can afford it.

I, for one, would certainly not be willing to embrace a concept of free speech if one must pay for it at $180 for six months.

No comments: