, Madison, Wisconsin USA

Censorship as Theater

This was originally intended for the cypherpunks mailing list. The cypherpunks list is primarily about cryptography and public policy about cryptography; however, many people were griping on-list about media treatment of the Internet after Compuserve canceled its coverage of several newsgroups at the urging of a state prosecutor in the German state of Bavaria. Most of the media coverage labeled all the deleted content as 'smut' or 'cybersmut.' However, many of the canceled groups had no overtly sexual content, but were political discussion groups for gay and lesbian activists. Ironically, the Wisconsin Light reported that the Compuserve action spared soc.motss (members of the same sex), the canonical gay/lesbian/bi USENET newsgroup since none of the hot-button words appear in the group's name.

Scaring the Citizenry to Death is a Compelling Narrative Technique

The TV press portrays the Web and the USENET as central casting for pederasts, copperheads and narco-terrorists. I've sent a couple of email messages to local TV news outlets complaining about the broad brush of tar they sling. But, on reconsideration, I don't think all the letters, and rallies in South of Market (an area in San Francisco where Internet companies are concentrated) will do a bit of good even if they are televised. They will not help because TV is not suited for discussing detailed or sophisticated issues like constitutional law. TV news must compete with Roseanne and ER, so the Internet will be portrayed as a thrilling interzone of thugs (white supremacists with web sites), outlaws (Phil Zimmermann who, until recenty, was under investigation by the Justice Department for allegedly exporting cryptographic software, considered a munition, overseas), abominations (kiddieporn) and cranks (free speech fanatics like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Voters' Telecommunications Watch), and a few good guys (Senator James Exon and programmers turned detective like Shimomura and Stoll).

The Internet has been presented as almost completely unrelated to the lives of the viewer (the fantasy element) except when it can be used melodramatically (Donna Rice's lobby Enough is Enough and a blue binder full of GIFs, followed by mother hovering over child gravely asking for the First Amendment to be torched for the sake of children.) It's great theater, bad discourse.

There are opportunists such as the Christian Coalition as well as Cold, Flu and Drug Warriors who exploit the theater and provide characters and plot points to influence the show towards their goals of banning speech by gays and lesbians and keeping strong cryptographic tools away from individuals. When you try to show the flaws in their arguement, you'll be shouted down or labeled an anti-Christian. The implied threat of terrorists and child molesters lurking behind every computer needs a theater to work. TV news provides the theater.

The civil libertarians of the net, good people such as John Barlow and Avedon Carol, have been eclipsed. We think we can influence public debate through reasoned argument. We are so quaintly Jeffersonian. We can't because reasoned argument isn't good TV. Appeals to reason cannot withstand someone screaming about the army of thugs and pederasts who are coming for you and your child. It isn't even good Internet. In truth, most searches of Lycos, Alta Vista and Open Text are for photos of naked women. And the money buying bandwidth and servers these days isn't worried about the constitution, it wants to attract people to a site so they can sell things.

If we were to fight censorship in the media, we would have to use the techniques as our foe: stereotyping, baiting, and oversimplification of complex issues. Turning anti-censorship into theater ignores the basic idea we're arguing for, and reduces us to another gang of marketing nerds. To carry the day, we have to take the argument outside of the TV and other media influenced by TV. We must tell our friends and family why a ban on indecent material affects everyone.

Afterword: The Society of the Spectacle

A friend with a background in crtical theory read an earlier print version of this essay and responded:

Welcome to the Society of the Spectacle identified by Guy Debord [of the Situationist International] in the 50's. The Situationists thought you could override the Spectacle with more and different Spectacle until the rotten thing would collapse on its own. They didn't imagine Television though, and the heights of spectacle we'd get. ... The trick: technology will not save us out here 82 years after the death of Western Civilization; we need a new philosophy.

Appendix: Abusing the Language

People pushing for censorship have a tendency to bend and twist language. Here are some examples:

Free Speech Fanatics
I heard this term used by Adrian Cronauer ("Good Morning Vietnam") on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program. He described people opposed to a constitutional amendment allowing for laws prohibiting 'descration' of the U. S. Flag as free speech fanatics.
The 'a-bomb' of the Religious Right. If you criticize the Religious Right, or denounce any part of their platform, you'll be called an 'anti-Christian.' In a country where as Katha Pollitt wrote "to get into the public square requires that one tip one's hat to the corner church or risk the hairy eyeball," that label will have you marginalized in an instant.