Monday, February 1, 1999

Week of 02/01/1999

Planning the Attack on the Internet
- by David Matthews 2

You know, I was always wondering about the reasons behind all the hoopla behind bashing the Internet. I really don’t think it was a coincidence that the timing of the much-refuted "Cyberporn" feature article in Time Magazine followed the introduction of Senator Jim Exon’s Communications Decency Act to the Telecom Bill in 1995. The CDA went nowhere as a stand-alone bill twice before Exon managed to include it into the Telecom Bill, and Time’s "in depth" report on the subject of sex over the Internet served to make Exon’s bill a legislative certainty.

They say that love is the strongest emotion in the universe. I disagree. I say fear is the strongest emotion. Politicians use fear to get voters to side with them, even when common sense tells them otherwise. Fear keeps people from being creative, from taking risks, from learning and growing. Fear keeps whole neighborhoods under the control of gangs and mobsters. And yes, fear keeps people stuck on certain issues - and as you can tell, I’m just as guilty as anyone else of heeding to fear.

That said, this is what I envisioned could have happened a couple of years ago between a certain publication and a certain group of politicians. Now, to be brutally honest, I have no idea what really happened, or if the following account is anywhere near what really happened. It’s best to take the following story as simply that - a story that can demonstrate how a fear and a well-planned attack can lead to the deprivation of individual rights and the further encroachment of government into the everyday lives of you and me.

It was late in the evening. The hallowed halls of the government offices took on a more sinister tone when the sun went down.

The conference room was dark. A single lamp hung over the custom-built mahogany table that provided the only illumination. The air was rich with the smell of cigar smoke and power. The affairs of the nation were debated here. Deals were struck. At one point in time, money even exchanged openly across the ancient table.

It was that sense of power that made the two publishers sit in awe in the otherwise empty and dimly lit room. They would otherwise be in their offices in New York, but they were told that this situation was so important, so vital, that it would change everything that they would hold dear in their lives. They wondered what that issue would be, and why it would be so important that it would require them to be present instead of their Washington correspondents. They would have those answers soon enough.

The door opened and a collection of men in suits entered the room. It was easy to identify the senators, since they were the eldest of the group. But nobody made any impression that they held any serious power. It was the younger members of this group, the ones who followed the senators into the room, that held the real power in Washington. They took their place on the opposite end the two publishers were sitting at, while the senators took up the chairs in the middle of them.

Introductions were made and handshakes exchanged.

"OK," said the first publisher, who spoke for the duo, "you called us in here, now would you mind telling us what this is all about?"

One of the senators, a crusty old man who reminded people of Walter Matheu’s ugly big brother, did the speaking. "What do you know about the Internet?" he asked.

The publisher turned to his partner, who shrugged his shoulders. "Something about communicating through computers," he finally answered.

"It’s a little more than that," explained the senator. "The Internet is a series of electronic networks that allow people to communicate around the world. Right now it’s done through computers, but I’m told that in the future it’ll even be done via your TV set."

"So what does that have to do with us?" the second publisher asked. "We publish a magazine. Besides, we’ve been using networks for years. It’s how we’re able to.."

"You don’t get it," interrupted the second senator. "This Internet will soon be a part of everything. There’s talk about it replacing all publications in a matter of years."

"All sorts of publications will go online," continued the first senator. "Anyone who has access will be able to put their own publications for the whole world to see. It won’t require a huge amount of money. Just access."

"So?" asked the second publisher, oblivious to the implications these lawmakers were saying.

The second senator continued. "Anyone with access can publish what they want, post whatever they want. Without editors. And it’ll be accessed by the whole world!"

"That means YOUR magazine will be irrelevant," exclaimed the first senator. "You’ll be out of a job!"

The two publishers sat there, staring at each other. The implications of what was said were startling. A medium that anyone can access and anyone can publish? Without editors?

"So…" posed the first publisher, "what are you planning on doing?"

The two senators smiled. They had them sold. "We’re going to regulate it," the first senator proudly announced. "We already have a bill proposed that would regulate content on the Internet. We just need public support."

"Which is where you come in," the second senator said.

Only then did the young suits act. The baby-faced spokesman handed the publishers a manila folder.

"This is a report from an undergraduate at Carnegie," the younger man said with pious determination. "It says that pornography dominates eighty percent of the Internet. We also went through every filthy, illegal, and immoral site there ever could exist and pulled up the filthiest of pictures. The senator already has a copy of them and will waive them around down the halls to offend the Senate. We need you to run a story that will mirror what the study says. That way it will look like the senators are just following the public’s outrage over the issue."

The two magazine publishers skimmed through the study. "Can you imagine the headline?" the first publisher said to the second.

"I can," his associate replied. "We put this stuff on the cover, it’ll get everyone’s attention…"

"We want you to make sure you mention that children can get access to this stuff at any time," the baby-faced one said. "The bigger the threat the better!"

The senators smiled. They knew they had quick converts.

But then the publishers threw a curve.

"What about confirmation?" the second publisher asked. "I mean, this is from an undergraduate. How do we know this information is legitimate?"

The senators gave a worried look at the younger suits, but the baby-faced spokesman stood firm. "Don’t worry, we’ll provide you with whatever confirmation you need. Just find a writer who won’t back down on the issue once the heat is on. Sensationalize it! We’ll take care of everything else."

Handshakes were exchanged. The deal was done. Within weeks, the headlines will pronounce the new nightmare for Americans, and the new crusade for those who make their living off crusades.

The first publisher waited until they had left the hallowed office building until he spoke. "You realize that if we run this article the way they want us to and we’re wrong, we’ll be crucified."

"You really think so?" asked the second publisher. "By the time the truth comes out, the story will be cold. It won’t really matter then. If they’re right, we’ll be awarded for bringing this issue out in the open. If they’re wrong, the blame will go on them, not on us. After all, we’re just the messengers. Either way, we’ll win."

The first man chuckled. "Heh.. I guess you’re right." Then he looked over at the Capitol building, and everything that Washington politics represented. "Ho, I love this city!"

"God bless America," replied his associate.

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