Why the Internet is "Dangerous"

The Internet is "dangerous" because it is a medium for the instantaneous and uncontrolled transmission of ideas.

We think of free speech as being a given--almost an absolute--in the United States and much of the Western world. Though everyone knows that certain kinds of speech, such as pornography, are against the law, most of us don't think about the web of social, nongovernmental constraints on legal but disfavored speech.

Unpopular ideas are marginalized in our society, restricted to the fringes of public discourse even without the need for any governmental action. Broadcast television and radio, cable, newsmagazines and book publishers all are--or are owned by--large conglomerates. Many rely on advertising, or own other businesses that do, or are simply owned or controlled by people whose personal involvement in the social web of contacts and constraints guarantees moderation in ideas. No idea sees the light of day until it has been turned over, examined from every angle, and pronounced fit for human consumption. Editors approve articles and books, and are managed by publishers who sometimes intervene in content. Committees decide what news stories to cover and which to ignore.

Our courts have confirmed that the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects many works we don't really want anyone to see. The Anarchists' Cookbook is an example. A morally repugnant compilation of bomb and murder recipes, it has been selling steadily for 25 years. You have probably never seen it in a bookstore or a library. The government cannot stop it from being distributed but, where the government leaves off, the web of social controls takes over. No mainstream publisher will publish it. No bookstore chain will carry it.

Some ideas, like those embodied in the Anarchist's Cookbook, should be unpopular. Others shouldn't. Noam Chomsky, famous linguist and philosopher, is also a far left historian and critic of American social and foreign policy. He does not advocate murder or tell you how to commit it; he tells you about instances in which he believes the U.S. government has advocated and committed murder. Protected by the First Amendment? Yes. Unpalatable to many people? Yes. Very hard to find in most bookstores? Yes. The web of social control ensures that Chomsky, published by small, alternative presses, will be hard to find. You don't have to agree with Chomsky, but don't we all benefit if his ideas are more accessible, taking their rightful place in the public contest of ideas?

Years ago, I met a British student, learning French in Paris, who remarked, "I know enough French to understand a politician on TV--but I don't know enough French to have an opinion." Ideas are the words of our cultural, ethical, political language. The fewer the ideas, the smaller the vocabulary. Don't you want to have a large vocabulary? Unfortunately, the social web works to keep it rather small.

The antidote to the social web is the World Wide Web. There is a Chomsky home page, with megabytes of his essays available. There is pornography. There are bomb recipes. The Internet swarms with ideas of all types, popular, unpopular and illegal. Nothing can be found on the Internet that also cannot be found elsewhere; all of the ideas on the Internet can be judged legal or illegal according to standards that existed before the Internet was dreamed of. So why all the fuss--why are there people like Senator James Exon demanding new rules for the Net? Why do schemes to regulate the Internet include outlawing material that is acknowledged to be perfectly legal, and even protected by the First Amendment, off of the Net?

The answer is that the Internet, as I stated above, is a medium for the instantaneous transmission of ideas free of the web of social controls. Ideas on television or radio, or in books and magazines, emanate from corporate offices. Ideas on the Net emanate from a million servers worldwide. Ideas do not get in or out of those corporate offices, let alone make it into the broadcast or the publication, without someone's strict review and approval. Ideas spread across the Internet like viruses through a crowded city.

You don't need to find a publisher on the Internet; if you have a computer, you are a publisher. You don't need to find a distributor; again, you are one, and via such intermediaries as Usenet news groups and other people's links pages on the Web, you are likely to find scores, even thousands, of eager re-distributors of your ideas.

The unspoken premise of laws such as the Communications Decency Act is that what we can tolerate if it is marginalized by social control, becomes unbearable when it becomes exempt from such control. The drama of government regulation, social control and the Internet is played out against a background of subject matter as diverse as pornography, cryptography, sadism, bomb recipes, religion and even business discourse.

There is some illegal material on the Internet. There are ways of regulating this material according to standards consistent with those for offline material. The grave danger is that zealots will kill the Internet as a vital medium for ideas, choking ideas that deserve to be heard in order to stop the illegal ones.

The freedom of the Internet from the web of social control is a good thing. We have to resist the forces--political, legal and in the business world--that are trying to make the Internet as easy to control as a television broadcast. There are people who would be perfectly happy if the material you see on the Net were also selected in a corporate office. The fragmentation of the Web into competing proprietary hypertext standards, the invasion of the content business by service providers, phone companies, and the mainstream information companies, are all steps in this direction.

A note on memes

The idea of the "meme", introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins almost twenty years ago, is very important to an understanding of the Internet and social control.

Dawkins speculated in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, that ideas, singly and in related groups, behave much like genes, replicating themselves through the population and waging an evolutionary arms race against one another. He called such ideas and groupings "memes". While some regard the word as New Age babble for "idea", I do not, because of the added implications of grouping, replication and natural selection that are not native to the word "idea". Morality and a belief in God, for example, are two ideas that are distinguishable but frequently join to form one meme. Creationism is a meme that (most people would agree) has been losing the evolutionary battle to the meme of Darwinism. The Internet is a seething morass of good and bad memes, engaged in an evolutionary battle to propagate across as many servers (and brains) as possible. This is a good thing. The "idea mediators" in large corporate offices should not decide which ideas propagate any more than they should choose which people reproduce their genes in the next generation. Genes and memes both should involve individual choices.

Loss of common sense

Another theme is that revolutionary new technologies, and the rapid, immense social changes they cause, usually cause us to lose our common sense. Chaotic change causes people to jam the brakes on or go off half-cocked; many of the people calling for regulation of the Internet today are criticizing--even demonizing--the side effects of a technology they don't understand. (They are therefore quite similar to people who call for censorship of books they have not read and movies they have not seen--in fact, they are some of the same people.) Legislators, judges and social critics are all stumbling around in the dark where the Net is concerned. At the same moment, businessmen have rushed in, hoping to make millions with the new technology, and their behavior-- extravagant claims that can only lead to disappointment, pushing products out the door that are not even in alpha release yet--only confirms to the politicians, judges and critics that what we are dealing with here, this Internet thing, is essentially lawless. A return to common sense is vital. This can only happen when a few conditions are satisfied: there must be a bit of calm; better information about the Internet, its contents and customs, and the laws that pertain to it, must be available; and legislators especially must understand that they should regulate the Net with a forceps, not with a hammer. I hope that the smoke of confusion will clear before society has damaged or destroyed this new thing; I hope for the return of common sense.

Let the good memes win.