No Gatekeepers

by Jonathan Wallace

Our president's latest scandal was broken by Internet columnist Matt Drudge, who reported that Newsweek had spiked a story about Monica Lewinsky.

Some people see that as a black eye for the print media and a victory for the Internet. Not First Lady Hillary Clinton, who was asked about the Net's role in dissemination of news at a press conference on February 11.

As exciting as these new developments are.... there are a number of serious issues without any kind of editing function or gate-keeping function. What does it mean to have the right to defend your reputation, or to respond to what someone says?

There used to be this old saying that the lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. Well, today, the lie can be twice around the world before the truth gets out of bed to find its boots. I mean, it is just beyond imagination what can be disseminated.

Clinton was asked whether she favored regulation of the Net. She said she didn't yet know, but commented:

Anytime an individual or an institution or an invention leaps so far out ahead of that balance [contemplated by the Founders] and throws a system, whatever it might be -- political, economic, technological -- out of balance, you've got a problem, because then it can lead to the oppression of people's rights, it can lead to the manipulation of information, it can lead to all kinds of bad outcomes which we have seen historically. So we're going to have to deal with that.

These are among the most scary words ever said about Net regulation. Contrast them to the rhetoric we're used to, about the Net as a hydra-headed pornmonger reaching into your child's bedroom. Censorship advocates like former Senator Exon at least have the decency to pretend that all they care about is "decency." Mrs. Clinton goes a huge step further: she's worried about information. Not just falsehood. Information. Obviously, for her the right result was Newsweek's decision to spike the story, not Drudge's to run it.

We're already far enough along in the Lewinsky scandal to know something happened. The President and Mrs. Clinton have endured a lot of falsehood on the Net. I don't remember either of them calling for Net regulation because of Usenet postings or Web pages claiming that the military shot down flight 800, or that Ron Brown or Vincent Foster were assassinated. It took the truth, not a lie, to make Hillary Clinton say the Net is dangerous.

This recalls the early days of the republic, when laws banning "seditious libel" were in force. Back then, there were greater penalties for telling the truth than for lying. People might disbelieve a lie. The truth was more damaging.

Preserve us from gatekeepers. Their function is highly overrated. Yes, they filter out some falsehoods, but they also print some, while blocking some truths. Their sense of what interests the public is notoriously faulty and unrepresentative. Most of the time, if I really want to drill down into an issue and get to to the truth, I get my information from the Net.

As it happened, I didn't get Hillary Clinton's comments above from the print media; I found them in a posting by Declan McCullagh to his fight-censorship list. For three years, I've written whatever I wanted, whenever I felt like, in The Ethical Spectacle and to my mailing lists. A gatekeeper of any kind would have spiked many of of the stories I wrote. An editor might have made some little contribution to my grammar or, on occasion, my spelling. In the balance, I've done much better without gatekeepers than I have with them.

Contrast the experience I've had writing for others. In the past three years, I've had articles killed by print media, or edited beyond recognition. Language I never wrote expressing ideas that aren't mine has been introduced. I even saw scores of typographical errors crop up in the hardcover of Sex, Laws and Cyberspace during the editing process. More people read The Ethical Spectacle every month than have read that book in the two years it has been out.

People like Hillary Clinton want gatekeepers for the Net not to screen for falsehood but to keep the truth within acceptable parameters. Government censorship isn't necessary when the media censors itself. Mrs. Clinton appears to hold the "Don't make me come over there" theory of government.

Judge Stewart Dalzell, in his opinion in ACLU v. Reno invalidating the Communications Decency Act, had a much higher opinion of a medium without gatekeepers. Judge Dalzell appreciated the Net's "low barriers to entry", "astoundingly diverse content" and "relative parity among speakers." His fascinating conclusion was that the Net is superior to print media as a "speech-enhancing medium" precisely because of the lack of gatekeepers:

It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen.... Indeed, the Government's asserted 'failure' of the Internet rests on the implicit premise that too much speech occurs in that medium, and that speech there is too available to the participants.

He noted that, if the government were permitted to impose gatekeepers on the Net, the "Internet would ultimately come to mirror broadcasting and print, with messages tailored to a mainstream society" where "economic power has become relatively coterminous with influence."

Judge Dalzell praised "the autonomy" that the Net "confers to ordinary people as well as media magnates." This autonomy is precisely what frightens Hillary Clinton.