Patricia Nell Warren's NEWS YOU DIDN'T SEE ON TV
I am following the "censorware summit" at the White House with some concern. It appears that our President -- who uncorked the magic bottle of the Information Superhighway with such flair just a few years ago -- is now struggling to stuff the genie back in the bottle. The blocking software available to parents, while radical in itself, is not enough for the President. The White House would have the Net submit to a rating system.
We already know that the TV rating system isn't working. Ratings for the Net are no answer either.
The SafeSurf proposal being presented at the White House is typical of the post-CDA censorship schemes. It is called the Online Cooperative Publishing Act. SafeSurf contends that the OCPA respects adult free speech whilst protecting children. In my opinion, it is the most refined kind of unconstitutional BS. It creates a new civil right -- namely, to be secure in one's home from being "violated" by adult-rated Internet images. It creates a new crime called "negligent publishing of adult-oriented material."
In short, the OCPA does put a censoring onus on the Net publisher. It DOES limit adult speech. Most Web publishers will adult-rate or suppress any material that is questionable, in order to avoid being sued by hordes of parents, who are given broad standing to sue publishers under this proposed law. Search engines will decline to list anything not rated. If your site isn't listed with the search engines, you're dead. So it adds up to the same kind of suffocating genie-bottle as the CDA was.
In Spanish, this phenomenon is called "autocensura," or self-censorship. The term dates from the Franco years, when Spanish publishers did their own quiet suppressions of material -- for fear that anything questionable would bring raids by the "grises" (state police). A single sentence, a wrong word, could land you in Carabanchel Prison. I lived in Spain for ten years, from 1962 to 1972, and saw how the system worked -- I was a working editor/journalist in the Madrid office of a big U.S. publication. It wasn't pretty, but it certainly "protected" Spanish schoolchildren from anything you could name, from sexy pictures to mention of birth control. The Spanish people joked about how they didn't take their culture seriously, and the black market in forbidden publications from abroad was lively. But behind the jokes, this puritanism devastated Spanish culture for decades... literature, the arts, journalism, films, the media, everything. Today, 20 years after the Spanish genie was finally let out of the bottle, he is still trying to catch his breath.
Franco's world is the kind of world that SafeSurf proposes in the OCPA.
U.S. parents who are that ouchy about their kids ought to use the most fine-toothed censorware going...or they ought to bite the bullet and not have an Internet account in their home. Down through history, some U.S. parents did not let their kids go to dances or movies. Fine. They had the right to do this. But they didn't have the right to make the whole country stop dancing. Likewise, Prohibition failed because the puritanism of some was foisted on all of us. Today the puritans don't have the right to put the whole Internet back in a bottle simply because their own 10-year-old might see an undraped David or Playgirl on the computer screen. These parents are trying to put the legal responsibility for their children's "innocence" (to quote the SafeSurf proposal) onto millions of other people, instead of accepting the full responsibility themselves and simply yanking the computer plug out of the wall.
The OCPA has some loopholes. What about youth rights to data on arts and culture, safer sex and disease? Perhaps the radical-right parents have the "right" to keep their own kids "innocent" (read uneducated) on these subjects, but they don't have the "right" to demand censorship for all minors, especially older minors. The SafeSurf proposal doesn't even address the growing Internet use by K-12 schools across the country. Even with blocking software, there is always the chance that student hackers will bypass the filters right in the classroom. The radical-right groups know this, and are determined that school kids won't download anything but pap. An OCPA-conferred "right of a student to be free from violation by Internet images at school" will create a legal can of worms -- especially since radical-right parents seldom support students' rights to be free from physical violation (i.e. bashing) at school. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively on youth free speech.
President Clinton's recent statements about the need for an international "free trade zone" on the Internet may make the genie moot. We may be looking at the threat of an international treaty, signed by hundreds of nations who agree to cooperate on policing the Internet. Many countries are already severely censoring the Internet within their own borders. So the U.S. government could take the convenient position that it "has to" go along, in order to police international terrorism, drug traffic and hard porn on the Net. Along the way, free speech will vanish like the morning dew.
If Congress passes a rating system, or if Congress votes to sign an international convention on Internet policing, won't that mean that Congress is once again legislating on a First Amendment matter? And hasn't the Supreme Court twice slapped them down for doing that (once being the CDA, the other being the Religious Freedom Act decision)? Indeed, the Supreme Court might frown at any federal move to use an international leg-hold trap to catch the Internet genie.
As the battle to subdue the genie goes on, I am amazed to see so many Internet entities rushing to support the idea of a Net rating system. What happened to the courage with which so many opposed the CDA? The fear and trembling is already starting. It's pitiful.
If the Internet genie is corked at last, then censorship of radio, films, TV, books, magazines and newspapers will surely be next. The federal government won't even have to strong-arm bookstores or wholesalers or libraries. All they'll have to do is establish a rating system for books, then require R.R. Bowker (the firm that creates the Books in Print database for all books published in the U.S.) to refuse to give ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) to any books that don't carry a rating. It would then be unlawful to sell an adult-rated book to a minor. Today you can't market a book without an ISBN number! (In fact, the ISBN system is used globally, so using it to censor would produce an international chill.) This is exactly what the fascist government did in Spain. You couldn't market a book in Franco's Spain unless it carried stamps of approval from both the Catholic Church and the state's central censorship office.
How ironic that a Democratic President should be adopting a fascist model of censorship! In his haste to steal issues from the right, and use them for his own political purposes, President Clinton is about to shoot his own genie in the foot. Let's hope that the genie is too fast for him. Let's hope that enough Americans want the genie to stay free. The inside of a bottle is a very small place.
Here is the full text of the OCPA.
Patricia Nell Warren is the author of the bestselling novel THE FRONT RUNNER, and its forthcoming sequel BILLY'S BOY. She is also a popular commentator and youth advocate.
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