Monday, June 26, 2000

Week of 06/26/2000

Net Censorship: They Still Don’t Get It
- by David Matthews 2

"As a matter of constitutional tradition.. we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it." - Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, ACLU Vs Reno, 1997

It’s hard to imagine that it has been four years almost to the day since the courts rendered their verdicts against the US government from censoring speech on the Internet. Three years almost to the day when the US Supreme Court rendered their 7-2 decision that gave the Internet the fullest protection of the First Amendment. Three years after Justice John Paul Stevens issued the majority ruling that told Congress they have no authority to dictate content online.

Three years after all of that, the appeals process is once again issuing rulings concerning Internet censorship, and once again reminding members of Congress of what the highest court in the land has already said on that very same issue.

Of course, I’m talking about the Child Online Protection Act, otherwise known as COPA or CDA 2.0. The anti-American law was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton as part of a huge omnibus spending bill in 1998. Much like its anti-American predecessor, the Communications Decency Act, COPA would force online providers to put any material deemed "harmful to minors" in some kind of credit card-based age-verification service. The only differences between COPA and the CDA being a lesser criminal penalty, and a much broader notion of what is "harmful to minors" instead of the indefinable "indecent" category. But however you soft-pedal the language, their end results are identical: the censoring of all speech online to what is "safe" for children.

Of course, the moralists and members of government all claimed that they would only use that law for the most "extreme" of websites. You know the ones.. the ones that ALREADY operate on credit-card based age-verification services because they can make money off of them. But that law, as it was WRITTEN, would be applied to ALL websites, subjecting them to the standards of the most conservative of communities and the most zealous of prosecutors. That was why a federal judge and a three-judge appeals court all unanimously agreed with the plaintiffs and said that COPA was blatantly unconstitutional.

I sometimes wonder just why the members of Congress even bother with trying to censor speech online. Why do they continue to break their oath of office and violate the First Amendment like speeders on Georgia 400? Why, after being told time and time again by the judicial system that they CANNOT pass laws that regulate Constitutionally-protected speech, they rewrite that same unconstitutional and anti-American law under a different name?

It’s not that they don’t understand the issues. Three years ago, that may have been the case, but not today. The judicial decisions were very specific about how the Internet worked and explained how the Internet was an end-user medium. Certainly members of Congress, who create the most complex and anally-retentive tax laws, could understand just how the Internet works and why their measures are wrong.

That’s what was frustrating for me. It’s not like we’re talking about a group of idiots here. Aside from certain longtime members of Congress who suffer either from senility or brain rot, we’re talking about some fairly educated and intellectual people. People who should know that what they are doing is wrong.

Then the answer came to me. It is not that they don’t understand that what they are doing is wrong, unconstitutional, and very much anti-American. They just don’t get it.

That is perhaps the ultimate irony of the whole system of government in America. Here we have over five hundred elected members of Congress, as well as the President and Vice-President of the United States. Men and women who are well-versed in the issues of law and government, some of whom have even served in the defense of their country. People who have taken a solemn oath as required of their job to protect and defend the Constitution, yet they lack one single and solitary clue as to WHAT the Constitution is designed for!

Perhaps they suffer from the literary version of farsightedness.. they can understand long and complicated terminology but they cannot understand something as simple as "Congress shall make no law..". After all, we have a president who supposedly taught constitutional law, yet he actually had to ask what the definition of "is" is.

Or perhaps they are freedom-blind, much like people can be color-blind. Maybe just like some people can’t see the color red, our elected officials just cannot see the freedom clauses in the Constitution.

Or perhaps those well-educated members of Congress are simply puppets to their special interest masters, the groups who contribute millions of dollars to their campaign war chests. Groups that have a vested interest in subverting the Constitution so they can spread their influence and power over others. Groups like the Christian Coalition, who wrongly believe that America is not only a Christian nation, but one that follows THEIR vision of Christianity.

Or perhaps we can get brutally honest and admit that we have elected officials who push for these anti-American laws because they ARE addicted to power and who DON’T care about the Constitution, and will do EVERYTHING in their power to subvert the very document they take an oath to protect and defend. Men and women who DO have an ulterior motive, one that is contrary to the very things America is supposed to represent, and the only thing that is in their way are a handful of judges and the US Constitution.

But if the elected officials just don’t get it, they are not alone in their cluelessness.

Members of the media have also been playing willing pawns to the censor-happy members of government, and I’m not just talking about the more traditional members of the media like NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN. I’m sad to say that even the newer Internet-based members of the media have also bought into the shrill line of the moralists and power-mad members of Congress hook, line, and sinker.

Perhaps the most shocking of headlines about this issue came from the folks at Wired magazine, one of the original critics of online censorship and one of the fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act.

The headline from shows their betrayal: "Court Says Anti-Smut Law Illegal: Pornophiles, rejoice! The Internet is once again safe for smut."

Three years ago, their headline would have been "Three Judge Panel Declares COPA Unconstitutional!" Maybe they forgot that COPA would have also been used to censor their own publication just like the CDA would have. Now that their website is owned by Lycos, Wired News has started to act like the very media establishment they once criticized.

Here’s one from the conservative World Net Daily: "Judges rule anti-smut law illegal"

Uh, excuse me guys, but did you realize that the law would have affected more than just what you deem to be "smut"? It would have also affected your coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, as well as your coverage of any more of Clinton’s past "liaisons". Are you prepared to put that kind of news through a credit-card based age-verification service to comply with the law? I didn't think so.

And don’t think that this bias is just limited to US publications. Here’s one from the London Register: "Kiddie smut law shot down again"

Maybe that should be expected from a country whose favorite motto is "No sex please, we’re British", but in their zeal to slam the blokes from across the pond, they made a slight error in that headline. "Kiddie smut".. as they call it.. is child porn. That’s been illegal, and that’s NOT what COPA was designed to outlaw. If it were, it would not be challenged so vigorously by so many groups.

Perhaps the most journalistically accurate of articles on this subject came from the folks at Ziff-Davis, which said that: "Efforts by Congress to regulate the Internet were dealt another blow when a federal appeals court ruled the COPA law unconstitutional."

Accurate and honest. This was not an attempt to "protect children", but rather to regulate content on the Internet.

But even there, the folks at ZDNN made one factual mistake: "Members of Congress had hoped the law would succeed where its predecessor, the Communications Decency Act, failed. That earlier piece of legislation, which had sought to prevent all Internet users from distributing pornography to minors, was struck down in 1997 by the U.S. Supreme Court."

Nice try, but not quite. The CDA was a blanket ban on anything deemed "indecent", a term never defined by law, and only once by the Federal Communications Commission for a completely different medium. Nor did "all Internet users" distribute pornography to minors, as ZDNN inferred. That kind of blanket condemnation of all Internet users is almost as insulting as the CDA itself.

What it all boils down to, once again, is this asinine belief of some people that it is the government’s job of protecting kids from accessing "inappropriate" things on the Internet.

Okay everyone.. listen very carefully. Matter of fact, get a pen and paper and write this down. Ready?


The role of monitoring what sites kids go to rests with THE PARENTS, not government. Read the Supreme Court decision, at least they got it for once.

You know, state and local governments have a hard enough time going after the criminals who prey on kids via the Internet. Those sick and twisted people who consciously target kids for their own equally sick purposes have no protection from those of us who defend the First Amendment, nor should they expect any. But parents need to realize that the online world is no different than the real one. It has a variety of sights and sounds, not all of them designed for kids. That variety comes from the fruits of freedom. If parents cannot grasp that notion, then they had might as well cancel their ISP service right now and stick to the controlled cyber-world that comes from a CD-ROM and DVD.

Federal Appeals Court Judge Leonard Garth had it right when he said "Sometimes we must make decisions that we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in a sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result." Sound advice, and certainly one that should be given to the censorship-happy special interest groups and power-mad members of Congress.

Those of us who enjoy the fruits of freedom need to remember that it does come with a price. It is a price of eternal vigilance, and it is a price of understanding that all voices must be heard, not just those deemed to be "mainstream" or "safe." The minute we start pruning those voices away in the name of "safety" is when ALL voices, mainstream or not, are in danger.

Monday, June 19, 2000

Week of 06/19/2000

The Missing Word
- by David Matthews 2

"Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." - George Orwell

Listen to all of that blather and banter by the politicians this year! Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!

You know, if political talk were gasoline, we would never have to worry about a gas crisis again. This year alone, gas prices would be at a penny a gallon.

And oh, to listen to Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore talk, you would hear just about every subject imaginable! They’ll talk about any subject as long as it gets them an extra minute or two on the news over their opponents.

But, you know, there is one word that is conspicuously absent from all of that talk. A word that has been systematically ignored by all these politicians. A word that politicians are almost afraid to utter.

Can anyone guess what that missing word is?

It starts with an "F"… and no, it is NOT the reference to human reproduction.

Did you say "fair"? Sorry, but today’s politicians LOVE to talk about what is or is not "fair." They can talk on and on about what is "fair" for taxpayers when they talk about making the tax code ever more complicated. They talk about what is "fair" for special interest groups, and what is "fair" for senior citizens, and even what is "fair" for major league baseball.

How about "faith"? After all, we are supposedly "religiously-challenged" now, right? That’s what the bible-thumpers claim is happening to America. Is "faith" the verboten word?

Nope. The politicians also LOVE to talk about "faith". They love to proclaim how "faith" would save the American family.. but only if it is the "right" kind of "faith". Just ask George W. about his little visit to Bob Jones University for a good example of the "wrong" kind of "faith".

It is not just religion that the politicians have "faith" in, though. Gore, for instance, has a tremendous amount of "faith" in the economy. He believes that the positive economy of the past eight years was the exclusive creation of the Clinton Regime, and that it would last forever. Never mind, though, that the economy has been showing signs of breaking down these past few months, especially with the gas prices breaking the $2 a gallon mark in most cities. You know that with gas prices going up, consumer costs will soon follow. The cost of living after that. But, supposedly, that doesn’t matter as long as Gore has his "faith" and he is allowed to be president.

And, of course, both Gore and Bush have tremendous "faith" in having government solve all of the world’s problems. They can’t seem to have enough talk about government being able to fix this problems and that problem, and just about any other problem that might come up.

So obviously "faith" is not the missing word in today’s political dialogues.

How about the "flag"?

Well, obviously not since just about ever politicians in America would rally around that flag. Some have even attempted to deify that flag so that its meaning as a symbol would be less important. But even when they can’t deify that flag, they certainly want to force people to pledge allegiance to it, even if such a pledge is against their religious beliefs.

So the "flag" is certainly not the missing word. What is?

How about "fun"?

Well, certainly that could be the missing word in politics, especially since the moralists get their jollies out of depriving people of their fun. Truth be told, however, the word "fun" is still a part of that political lingo, especially when they refer to their mythical utopian society of young people playing and having "fun." It does come close, though.

So what is the word that starts with "F" that the politicians are afraid to utter?

It’s "freedom".

Now of course, today’s politicians will mention freedom when they’re talking about some foreign nation, or perhaps in some reference to a historic event. But freedom in the here and the now? In America?

Let’s get brutally honest here. When it comes to today’s political issues, the word "freedom" is far from the current vocabulary.

The reason behind that, of course, is purely in the self-interest of the politicians. Real freedom, the freedom of the individual to choose his or her life, means that individual is not dependant on government to make those decisions on their behalf. That runs contrary to the desire of many politicians to be able to have some sort of power over others. After all, if people can live their lives as they see fit, what good are those politicians? That’s why many politicians do their best to keep the public addicted to government.

Oh, sure, guys like Gore will talk about "reducing the size of government." But that does not mean the same thing as reducing the need for government, or its scope. The private sector has been doing the very same thing for decades. It’s called downsizing.. otherwise known as job layoffs. Gore and his ilk have not reduced the need for bean counters, they simply reduced the number of bean counters.

Let’s think about that infamous Census 2000 "long form" with all of those intrusive personal questions in them. In all of the talks by Gore about "reducing the size of government", did he at all talk about cutting any of those questions in the long form? No, he hasn’t.

How about the plethora of new laws and regulations that Congress keeps on foisting on the American public? Has anyone politician - Democratic or Republican - made the repeal of those laws or regulations part of their platform of late? No, of course not. It’s not in their best interest to do that.

So the next time your local career politician talk about "reducing the size of government", challenge them to be more specific. Ask him or her exactly which laws or which regulatory body would they be in favor of eliminating. Simply reducing the number of government workers at any given department does not reduce the scope of government, which is where the real problem lies.

While we’re at it, let’s make freedom part of the political vocabulary again. Don’t just expect our elected officials to include it as part of their regular dialogue, because to them, talking about freedom is akin to talking about anarchy. The only way they will include it is if we the people MAKE it an issue. And that means to stop turning to government to solve all of our problems.

It’s a simple case of supply and demand.. when we stop demanding it, our big government dealers will have a hard time supplying it.

More freedom means less government. That’s something no politician wants to have happen.

Monday, June 12, 2000

Week of 06/12/2000

The Hysteria of Cybercrime
- by David Matthews 2

"Since the social victim has been oppressed by society, he comes to feel that his individual life will be improved more by changes in society than by his own initiative. Without realizing it, he makes society rather than himself the agent of change. The power he finds in his victimization may lead him to collective action against society, but it also encourages passivity within the sphere of his personal life." - Shelby Steele

Uh, excuse me, but do you know where your kids are?

Oh, they’re safe at home, you say? Doing what?

Surfing the Internet? Uh-oh.. not good!

Oh, didn’t you hear? All of those nasty news reports out there about pedophiles and serial killers and people who want to do who knows what to your precious little tykes!

The latest "alert" comes from USA Today and a government-sponsored study, which said that 20% of kids received "advances" by strangers for cybersex. Twenty percent! One in five kids! Oh the horrors!

Oh, but wait a minute… according to that same study, three-fourths of the kids who supposedly were propositioned brushed them off. So that makes it actually five kids in a hundred that considered the "advances" to be a problem.

Then again, you aren’t supposed to be thinking through that sort of stuff, are you?

Well, if that doesn’t scare your wits, how about the "SLAVEMASTER"?

That’s right, a lot of talk about this very disturbing case. Apparently this guy in Kansas is accused of meeting women online under the alias "slavemaster" and convincing them to meet with him in person for some sadomasochistic sex. Police now believe that five of those women were killed and placed in barrels that were stored at various places on the guy’s property.

Ugh! Creepy! But then again, no more creepy than a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gasey. Certainly in the same ballpark as Marquis de Sade, except with a Midwestern American home and a different means of getting women.

Oh, but wait a minute.. unless you’re looking for pain in all the wrong places, I guess you’re not really in any kind of danger, are you?

That’s right my friends, once again, we are playing the favorite game of the media, and especially of government: "Hysteria Mania!" The game where the media tells you of some kind of public threat, the public is supposed to be terrified, thus allowing the "benevolent" members of government to come rushing to the rescue with more laws and more regulations.

This game is nothing new, of course. Hysteria concerning the Internet has been going on ever since a certain magazine publication collaborated with a group of bible-thumping moralists and wrinkled old geriatrics in Congress to get people to believe that the Internet was filled with rapists and pedophiles.

The government’s remedy at the time was a complete ban on everything they deemed to be "indecent" - although the term itself was never legally defined. The ploy backfired, though, when more credible members of the online community fought back and challenged the government and the members of the media to prove their claims.

However, while one ploy failed, the hysteria on so-called "cybercrimes" continue. Identity theft, online stalking, credit card fraud, obtaining personal information, virus attacks, and online scams have all been used by members of the media to go beyond merely informing the online populace, but to also make people fearful, and thus demand that government "save" them.

Now let’s get brutally honest here. I am not making light of the serious and legitimate problems of the online community. There are some very sick and perverted people out there in the online world; men and women who prey on the generosity and naivete of a group of people who lack the online version of "street smarts", and I have no respect or support for those people.

However, there are ways to combat these serious problems that do not involve turning cyberspace into a heavily regulated police state, which is what the moralists and members of Congress have wanted to do for so very long.

Part of the reason why cyberspace criminals are able to thrive is not because the Internet is relatively open and anonymous. Quite the contrary. Even the most skilled hacker leaves a trail that can be traced back to the source given enough time and resources.

Rather, they thrive because their victims make themselves an easy mark.

Parents who know very little about the computer trust software to protect their children. They blindly trust that online filtering programs will work so good that they don’t have to do their jobs as parents. They foolishly believe that online chat rooms are filled with kids who are who they claim to be. They naively believe that they can have their personal information, and the personal information of their children, out there for anyone to see.

They almost deserve to have the words "SUCKER" tattooed to their foreheads.

However, it’s not entirely their fault. In their quest to appeal to every demographic, online software makers designed their programs to be so simplistic that even the most technologically clueless can be inept online in just minutes.

Are there solutions? You bet there are, but they are not going to come from the government, or from some kind of software program. Rather, many of our solutions have to start and end with us, the individual end-user.

First, we need to develop the online version of "street smarts." That means not being so careless about what kind of personal information you share with others. Not everyone needs to know your home address or your phone number, or how old you are for that matter. And we need to be skeptical of the people who do ask for that information. Why do they need it? What do they plan on doing with that information if you give it to them?

Also, once again, parents cannot simply fob off their responsibilities to the computer. Having a so-called "smart" system does not replace the role of the parents to making sure their kids are surfing the Internet wisely. Just as parents must scrutinize who their kids come in contact with in the real world, they must do the same online.

And finally, before we start looking at new laws to address the legitimate problems in cyberspace, we must first ask ourselves if there are already laws on the books. Politicians LOVE to write new laws, but they have a piss-poor record of seeing to it that those laws get enforced. Having one law, or even fifty laws, is meaningless unless those in government are willing to enforce them.

Maybe massive hysteria is the stock in trade for the modern media, but that does not mean we must fall into their trap. There are some serious concerns with the online world, but they really do need to be put into their proper perspective before they can be resolved.

Monday, June 5, 2000

Week of 06/05/2000

Covenant Neighborhoods - Passive Socialism
- by David Matthews 2

"All greatness of character is dependent on individuality. The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity" - James Fenimore Cooper

Ah, home sweet home! The great American dream.

There is no greater indicator of stability than to own a home. No more apartment dwellings. No more living in a building with walls so paper-thin that you could hear your neighbors as they breathe. No more being limited to the maintenance schedules of the superintendent. Your own home, with your own mailbox at the end of the driveway, and your own yard for you manage as you see fit.

One of the key indicators of economic stability is the sale of existing houses and the construction of new ones. New homes mean more people moving into a community. It means there are jobs available in the area. More homes mean more stores, more schools, and more services.

In the greater Atlanta area, growth was explosive during the years just before the 1996 Olympic games. It was not uncommon to drive down a stretch of road, and in just one month return there and see it clear-cut, with several hundred homes put up. The growth of subdivisions in the area actually moved faster than the growth of kudzu. One minute there is a patch of woods, the next minute there are fifty identical-looking homes.

And the people lapped up these homes! Who wouldn’t? Men and women who work good jobs and are paid well for their work can afford to take out a home mortgage. They all want that dream of living in their own homes and doing what they want to on their own property.

But is it really their property? Is the home they live in really theirs to do with as they wish?

Not in many instances.

Quite often those homeowners are living in enclaves called "covenant neighborhoods." Oh, they’ll have different names for it, the most popular being "homeowner’s association", but the game is still the same.

Covenant neighborhoods have been around for several decades. They’re popular with real estate developers, relators, and banks because for them it guarantees property values will remain constant.

Many owners, however, don’t even realize what they’re really getting into when they buy a house in a covenant neighborhood. Some aren’t even told they’re in a covenant neighborhood until the last minute of closing. Pete Whaley of Lawrenceville, Georgia, was ready to renege on his closing when he realized what was involved in living in a covenant neighborhood. He probably would have called the whole thing off if he and his family hadn’t already moved out of the apartment and were ready to move in that day.

So what is it that people get into with these covenant neighborhoods? Well, on the surface, you’d think pretty common sense stuff. You agree to keep the lawn mowed and the exterior of the house nice. No junk cars on cinder blocks or beat-up sofas on the porch, or painting the house bright neon colors. Pretty reasonable, right?

Well, if that was the case, there wouldn’t be so many problems with covenant neighborhoods.

Many covenants have more than just a few no-nonsense rules. Some get extremely anal-retentive and downright tyrannical.

Let’s look at some of the rules in Mr. Whaley’s neighborhood. People living in the Towne Park subdivision must keep their garage doors closed at all times, and park their cars "perpendicular" to the street in their driveway. Want to put in a new flower bed? Well, you must first submit a "landscaping plan" to the "Architectural Control Committee" and get their blessings. As a matter of fact, just about any change in the exterior of your house must first get their approval.

How about your lawn? Well in Towne Park, it’s not just important to keep your lawn mowed, but you HAVE to make sure your lawn is the same as everyone else. If your neighbors have Bermuda sod, you have Bermuda sod on your lawn. If your lawn is green in the winter while everyone else has a brown lawn, you get punished.

Pretty anal-retentive rules, don’t you think?

And guess who makes most of these rules? Well, not the homeowners, that’s for sure. In most instances, it is the developers and real estate lawyers who craft the rules, although if the homeowners want to they could remove some of the restrictions if they can get the support of three-fourths of the residents.

So let’s suppose you say "Screw them! This is my house and my property, and I’m going to do whatever I want to on my property! Besides, what are they going to do to me?"

Well, for starters, you get fined. The local homeowners association can assess fines of $25 per day for each infraction they see. And don’t think for a moment that the neighbors won’t complain. Local writer Jerilyn DePete thought the same way once, until her homeowners association decided to slip a notice in her mailbox simply because her lawn had patches of brown from a particular stain of Bermuda sod that turned green late.

Don’t pay the fine? Well, after a while the tab increases. Then they put a lien on your house. Essentially they could force you out of your own house.

So let’s get brutally honest here.. do you really own your own home if it is in a covenant neighborhood?

No, you don’t. Essentially you’re just leasing the home, maintaining it for the sake of the relators and the builders and your neighbors. This is the message of a covenant neighborhood: "We will let you live here, but you must keep the property looking nice for us. You will have to maintain it for us, at your own cost, and you won’t be able to make any changes to your property without our permission. You will essentially have to do everything you normally do if you still lived in an apartment, except you will also have to pay the property taxes as well."

The end result is you are not taking care of your own property for your reasons. You are simply there to take care of the property for other people. For the relators, for the lawyers, and for the neighbors, so their property will look just as good as yours. It’s not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, but rather forcing the Joneses to keep up with everyone else.

There is a word to describe this kind of existence: socialism.

So I’m sure you’re thinking that it’s up to the homeowners to decide whether or not to live in such a neighborhood. After all, they chose to live there, right? They knew what was required of them to live in that neighborhood. That’s what the real estate lawyers and the local socialist committees are saying, and I would tend to agree with that argument… if there really is a choice in the matter.

In some communities, however, there is no choice. Goaded on by relators and developers, some towns and suburbs in America are requiring all subdivisions to be under covenant, to essentially FORCE socialism on new homeowners. This is not only wrong, but contrary to every shred of freedom America is supposed to represent.

Lawyers and covenant advocates say that the alternative would be to live in the "wild, wild west"; that without their precious, constipated rules, the community would descend into anarchy. I would strongly disagree with that argument. I seriously do not think homeowners who don’t live in a covenant neighborhood are eager to paint their homes neon green, or lay down Astroturf in their front yard. The people who want to take care of their homes do so not because of some contract set up by lawyers eager for a quick buck and developers looking for buyers for their cookie-cutter homes. They take care of their own property because they are responsible individuals.

If someone wants to live in a socialist neighborhood, that is their decision. But the knowledge that a prospective home is a covenant one should be made up front, way before closing is even an option, so they can weigh that choice with other options. It would also help if the real estate lawyers got out of writing covenants. Have the homeowners decide for themselves which rules should and should not be applied. That would certainly make covenants easier to comply with, and cut down on many of the conflicts that currently arise today.

People don’t buy homes to appease developers, banks, lawyers, or relators. They buy homes for themselves and for their family. Somewhere in all that money and paperwork, that little fact of life has been forgotten.