Monday, April 29, 1996

Week of 04/29/1996

A Time and a Place…
Indecency standards are old, and soon invalid.
-by David Matthews 2

In the battle to protect the Freedom of Speech, it seems the US Supreme Court has erred on the side of government restrictions rather than on personal responsibility.

In a recent decision, the highest court in the nation left intact the ruling of an Appeals Court that reaffirmed the Federal Communications Commission's authority to restrict programming they consider to be indecent. The rationality given by the Appeals Court and thus confirmed by the Supreme Court was that the government has a "compelling interest in protecting children." That has been the argument ever since the federal government decided to regulate broadcast content.

And they've had a valid reason. Not necessarily a right or wrong reason, but a valid one nonetheless. Up until recent times, television and radio broadcasts have been broadcasting openly, with only the appropriate receiver needed to view or listen to the programs. There was no way for parents to control the content, thus the government felt it was their job to do so.

But then along came cable television, and soon the private industry was providing more efficient means to control content. Cable boxes soon were equipped with the means to lock out certain channels. Now, many television sets and VCRs have the means to "remove" channels from their listings. The Digital Satellite Service, or DSS, which made it's debut last year now provides the means to not only lock out and remove certain channels, but also to set a ratings limit on broadcasts and a spending limit on pay-per-view channels. This means parents using the DSS systems can set a rating limit of PG and the system will automatically block out all programs above that listing. And the newly announced digital video disc (DVD) system promises to provide even more of those safeguards to personal video that DSS provides to satellite services, by allowing parents to restrict content on the disc.

And while Congress debated about how to restrict content on the Internet, private industry has already come forth with numerous programs to allow parents to do just that. Programs with names like "Net Nanny," "Cyber Patrol," "SurfWatch," and "Cyber Sitter." And more such programs will soon be available. These companies did not wait for Congress to pass laws.

So the question is, how long before Washington gets the message that sometimes private initiative can outdo even the best government intentions? Or that personal responsibility, not social control, is the real foundation of this country?

Perhaps they will never get the message. In listening to the debate on the final Telecommunications bill, many representatives voiced their concerns over the needless regulations the bill will place on computer services like the Internet and broadcast media. Yet despite their objections, they neither proposed any changes to make the bill that "perfect" bill they wished it would be, nor did they urge to remove the bill altogether and start from scratch. Instead they simply voted for the bill in utter hypocrisy to their earlier reservations.

Since the late 1970's the Republican Party has been campaigning on some simple messages. They wanted to get "big government out of our lives" and to "let the marketplace decide." But in passing the telecommunications bill, they betrayed their own political messages for the wailing of special interest groups like the Christian Coalition.

Those who supported the GOP for such measures should realize that the GOP LIED to the American people. They should not be trusted in the 96 elections, and should be rewarded for their hypocrisy by being voted out in favor of those who will get government out of people's lives instead of pretending to do so.

Monday, April 22, 1996

Week of 04/22/1996

Holier than thou...
What's safe in the First Amendment anymore?
-by David Matthews 2

I came across something rather unusual while changing channels a few months back. I was jumping through to watch my favorite daytime show when I ended up on the neighboring channel, which happen to be a highly religious station. There, the host was talking about the upcoming debate on the telecommunications bill. The host was conversing with a Republican congressman from Texas on his assurances that in the zeal to censor what would be considered obscene or indecent from all facets of telecommunications, that somehow THEIR show wouldn't get included. It wasn't that the host was concerned about the protection of free speech as much as it was to prevent any of HIS future sermons from being censored for talking about indecency or obscenity.

It was clear from the first five minutes of the level of hypocrisy being generated, and the growing sense of frustration that our representatives could very well curtail an important part of the First Amendment, with most of the credit going to religious activists such as the Christian Coalition.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps they do have a point. Perhaps we should be willing to curtail our constitutional rights to protect the innocent children and the safety of the family. Once I saw this I realized that perhaps it was high time we went after an institution that have long since operated with impunity and open defiance- religion.

Let's face it. There are a lot of religious groups that have posed a clear danger to the safety of others. Not too long ago the nation watched in horror as David Koresh led his followers into a blazing death instead of surrendering to the federal agents surrounding them. For days, the Senate held hearings to try and pin the blame on someone in the Clinton Administration. Anyone. Alas, the only person they really could blame was Koresh and his religious followers.

Before Koresh, there was Rev. Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Jonestown. Hundreds of followers who either drank poison or were shot trying to flee from what was believed to be their day of redemption.

In between Koresh and Jones there have been dozens of cases when priests and ministers have been involved in criminal activity detrimental to children and families. Sordid cases of fraud, sexual abuses, and scandals. Tales of religious sects who use children as recruiters and help in door-to-door donations. Sects who stockpile weapons and hide in bunkers to await their own day of redemption. Religious groups who advocate or condone murder to defend the unborn and publish wanted posters of their intended targets. A major religious leader who was seen on his own television syndicated show, who defraud his congregation to line his own pocket and end up convicted in a federal court. And still another popular religious leader was caught with prostitutes not once, but twice!

Certain religious beliefs have also been detrimental to the health and welfare of children. Parents have allowed their children to die from needless illnesses simply because their religious beliefs forbid the use of medicines. And just last year it was publicly revealed that Susan Smith's stepfather- a prominent member of the Christian Coalition- not only admitted to molesting her as a teenager, but also had a brief affair with her prior to her killing her two sons. Are these examples of what the Coalition considers to be family values?

Worse yet, religion has a long history of human atrocities committed in the name of God; the most heinous of events that come to mind being the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition. Clearly these events have not been beneficial to the family and to children.

So let's regulate religion! Let's get laws passed that prohibit religious groups from endangering the safety of children. Let's outlaw future versions of Jim Jones or David Koresh from causing mass murders in the name of God. Let's regulate how religious groups distribute funds so that no future fraud can be committed against families.

Wait a minute? We can't regulate religion? Why not?

First Amendment? Freedom of Religion?

Aw, come on! What is a constitutional right in comparison to the safety of children and the sanctity of the family? How can you claim First Amendment freedoms when children are exposed to potential dangers? How can you be so defiant to protecting children against this tremendous burden of evidence? Don't you care?

Sound familiar? I thought so.

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.

Monday, April 8, 1996

Week of 04/08/1996

Just Dish-erts
-By David Matthews 2

In a move that outraged some local communities, the Federal Communications Commission recently announced their plans to lift some of the restrictions concerning satellite dish owners. The move is targeted at the newer Digital Satellite System- currently for sale through RCA, Sony, and GE, and leased through Primestar- with their smaller and more inconspicuous reception dishes. At under three feet in diameter, these dishes hardly resemble the so-called "monster dishes" of their predecessors that had earned the ire of some communities who considered them to be eyesores. After the announcement, some local community leaders objected, saying that the easing of those restrictions would once again allow homeowners to "litter" their properties and otherwise "mar" the community.

But is this the real story?

It is true that for decades some community leaders have used sometimes eccentric zoning laws to control what goes on in their neighbors' property. Everything from banning home-based businesses to determining what shade of white paint would be appropriate inside living rooms have been written into law and backed by judges who have determined that maintaining "esthetic" standards in the community outweighed the right of homeowners to maintain their own property as they deem fit.

But the FCC decision has a far greater effect on another portion of the community and to another much larger business- the cable companies.

For the past two decades, cable companies have been allowed to control their own services as they deem fit. Because they did not require monstrous reception dishes, and the cable line could easily blend in with telephone and power lines, they weren't subjected to the same limitations as the satellite companies, and thus were allowed to reach into most homes. Those same zoning laws some communities passed against satellite dishes eliminated a tremendous source of competition for the cable companies.

Because there was little or no competition or alternative to cable companies, they have been able to control what prices to charge consumers, what kind of channels would be available, and what sort of equipment upgrades would be needed. Even the attempts to "regulate" consumer costs up until most recently have been in vain as the cable companies simply found new ways to restructure their billing practices so they would comply with these new regulations. (By the way, those same cost-controlling regulations have since been repealed thanks to the Telecommunications Deregulation Law.) Consumers who were upset with the quality or the cost of their cable services were simple told it was "this or nothing."

Now, with most of those ownership restrictions lifted, more upset consumers can simply drop their cable subscriptions in favor of a satellite dish service. And depending on what kind of package they choose, the consumer will find they have a greater choice of channels and a much greater control over which channels they want their family to watch.

Of course that doesn't sit well with the cable companies, because now they will have to be something they usually aren't- competitive.

Monday, April 1, 1996

Week of 04/01/1996

An Electronic Nightmare From The Not-So-Distant Future
-by David Matthews 2

A computer?

Sure, I still have one. It's sitting in my den collecting dust.

But there used to be a day back in the mid-90's when that computer and I were the best of friends. There wasn't a day when I didn't turn it on and actually used it for a half-dozen purposes. Of course, those were different times. Back then the computer world had something for everyone.

Last week I removed the dust cover and turned the computer on, trying to recap the thrill of when I first started it. The old model seemed to hum with glee.

A minute later, Microbrain Billy appeared on my screen, asking me what I wanted it to do. After dusting off the keyboard, I ask Billy to open up the main program file. After a few guffaws and knock-knock jokes, the main program file appeared. Of course Microbrain didn't start out with lame cartoons and bad jokes. Once upon a time they had a respectable, easy-to-operate system for computer users. Then came the special interest groups and the social experts who said that the average computer user was getting younger and younger. Then the parents complained that they didn't have enough time to sit down and learn how to use the computer never mind supervise their kids on it. So Microbrain made their smart systems dumb. Very dumb. Dumb enough for most idiots to understand.

I looked inside the main program. The only programs left were an outdated word processor, a spreadsheet with a flawed math processor, a calculator that couldn't divide or deal in percentages, and of course "Uncle Wizzo's Fun House." What computer-using family didn't have an Uncle Wizzo program?

After digging through the UW program group, I finally found my old online service- Deadbeat Online. I accessed it and scrambled to find the piece of paper that had my old account number and password. Once upon the time I used to remember a dozen online accounts and passwords and could recite them backwards in my sleep.

"I got mail," or so DBL told me through my old speakers. Boy did I ever! Forty letters, all from the system operators wondering where I was. How come I didn't come back? Did I forget I had paid for a lifetime membership? Of course I paid for a lifetime membership! Golden membership plan with unlimited Internet time and free access between 2-6am every fifth Friday. They even sent me a cute little membership certificate that doubled as a mouse pad. My son later traded that in for one featuring Uncle Wizzo. Of course, by that time I didn't care because I had already lost interest with DBL.

I finished the mail and went straight to the Internet browser. I didn't even bother with DBL's chat boards or the software libraries. They were so sanitized that even the opening of a flower was considered obscene. Once on the Net, I went down my old list of memorized addresses. I was greeted with the same message over and over: "That address is no longer valid." The only Net address left was the one provided by all online services- Uncle Wizzo's Internet Site. Seeing that digitized clown with the frizzy hair and white face made me wish we still had that purple dinosaur around.

I left DBL and shut down the computer. Microbrain Billy didn't want me to exit the program without insulting me with more knock-knock jokes, so I went for the off switch. As the life ebbed from my computer once again, I could almost hear a plea coming from the speakers. "No. Don't go. Please stay...."

A few days later I was doing some business in town when I saw an actual computer store! I used to remember a time when there wasn't a store that didn't have computers or computer programs. Now the only place one can buy a computer or software program is in a toy store. I walked into the old store and instantly the salesman beamed as though I was his salvation. His face fell when I told him I was just looking.

The store had a few computers left for sale- mostly outdated systems with plenty of children's programs. Nearby were shelves of ultra-fast modems collecting as much dust as the computers. What was the use of getting a faster modem if your E-mail was still going to be held for three weeks so it would be screened for offensive content?

The salesman walked up to me and asked me if I had any kids. I told him I had two, but both were now teenagers. He simply sighed and walked back to his little corner to watch television. He knew there was no use trying to sell computer equipment to someone who didn't have little kids.

The software shelves were mostly empty. The tags listed a vast collection of programs the store once offered. Digital movies, combat simulators, digital photography, screen savers, sound effects, communications programs. All were made back when computers were designed for adults, before the government began to regulate software content to protect children. Now the only programs available were Microbrain Billy and the cornucopia of Uncle Wizzo programs. "Uncle Wizzo Rides the Train," "Uncle Wizzo Takes a Plane," "Uncle Wizzo Goes to School," "Uncle Wizzo Learns Math," "Uncle Wizzo Goes Online." Even Microbrain Billy's box couldn't avoid Uncle Wizzo's plastered face when they get the digitized clown's seal of approval- as though they ever needed the Uncle's approval for anything.

I remember reading about what happened to the man who played the real Uncle Wizzo- the one who visited school kids after that purple dinosaur lost it's government funding. The one who started an empire that epitomized electronic values. The one whose likeness now adorns ninety-five percent of all computer programs and Internet sites. I remember reading how his fifth wife found him in bed with his other four wives and how she hacked them all with a chainsaw. I'm told she pleaded insanity, found religion, and now is the chairperson of Uncle Wizzo Incorporated.

As I left the store, I could hear that same voice being whispered as the door closed. "No. Don't go. Please stay..."

Every so often I would hear some politician talk about computers and how despite all the laws and safeguards and regulations that somehow the so-called "electronic information superhighway" is the future of society. I have to laugh when I hear that. Yeah, perhaps it could have been the future- if it wasn't ruined by all those speed bumps.