In the past two years, I've had the honor of being invited by the ACLU to serve as a plaintiff in two Internet freedom of speech cases, ACLU v. Reno and ACLU v. Georgia. I've co-authored a book on Internet censorship with Mark Mangan, lectured, debated, challenged Cybersitter and generally done anything else I can think of to communicate my ideas about freedom of speech to the widest possible audience. The seminal idea in everything I've written is that the Internet deserves the most complete First Amendment protection, as if it were the printing press come again.
Keeping government hands off of our speech on the Net, however, is only half the equation. In quiet moments I am nagged by the thought that what we are defending is a middle class toy unless we make sure that it is more than that. There have been a score of volumes written about the diversity of the Net, and the way it permits us to explore new identities, even across gender lines. Every one of these works quotes the New Yorker cartoon in which a dog, sitting at a keyboard, says, "On the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog." But the reality would be better expressed by a cartoon which communicated that, behind the proliferation of colorful user names and play identities, on the Net no-one knows you're a middle class white person, probably male.
Looked at this way, the speech we are defending seems like after-dinner conversations over the wine in an exclusive club; it is the narrow democracy of a primitive world in which only a few people have the vote, like eighteenth century America. But the history of democracy has been that it is always extended, in principle, to wider and wider numbers, as suffrage becomes general, is extended to women and minorities, and the vote becomes universal. Without getting into arguments about the extent to which the United States is or is not a class society, we can probably agree that there has long been a strong tendency in most Western democracies to flatten the classes as much as possible.
Equality in the air--equal "opportunity" without access to the tools to capture good fortune--has always been meaningless. All too often, we have eliminated official barriers in the serene knowledge that unofficial ones will work just as well. Jim Crow laws were effectively replaced by private segregation. The profound hypocrisy of our society is that we conspire to prevent a man from having clean clothes, then announce that he is too dirty to sit at dinner with us. Or if we do not conspire, we stand by content and unquestioning while the denying forces work, and claim they do not exist, or that they are the way of nature, or "the invisible hand."
We think of the Internet as the great leveller, the instantaneous, easy to access medium where people of every type can exchange ideas with each other. In the next few years, it will (if all goes well) replace the one-way broadcast and print media as the most important forum for democratic communication in America. Every public debate, whether on the election, gun control, or welfare, already takes place there in large part. It will not be much of a shift for most public debates to take place principally there.
In such a world, anyone without access to the Net will not have access to democracy. Since the Net is a two way medium, denying access means denying both information and a voice to comment on that information. Anyone not able to participate in the principal forum of our democracy will be in a bind analogous to those denied the ability to learn to read and to register to vote.
This leads me to a plea. Before we get too self-satisfied in our exchanges with people just like us, we should each tote up a daily balance sheet: what have I done today to extend access to the Net to others? It seems to me that those of us who spend a great deal of time campaigning for free speech on the Net should spend at least a little time campaigning for access.
Its not really hard to do. In fact, it turns out to be incredibly easy. What usually stops us when we think about solving social problems is a kind of "grandiose helplessness"-- it seems impossible to do anything that will address homelessness, or hunger, or poverty on a grand scale. Perhaps you believe that only government can act on a grand scale. Or perhaps you are a classic Net libertarian, and believe in the "tragedy" of government "compassion". But you put your pants on one leg at a time, and it is similarly possible to do something for other people one at a time. Your impotence to help millions is a very strange reason not to go out and help one kid.
In the following essays, we tell the story of a modest program in which our company trained about one hundred kids in HTML, created a "Web club" for six or seven of them, and hired two as part time employees. Samples of their work-- Planet Beacon and the Dr. Martin Luther King pages--are online. I hope that after reading about what we did, you will persuade your own organization to try something similar. If you do, or are already involved in similar efforts, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.