Congress Censors the Net

Since June, when the Senate voted 86-14 for Senator Exon's vague, unconstitutional Communications Decency Act, I've had this creepy feeling: this can't be happening. When Speaker Gingrich announced the CDA was unconstitutional, I thought, at least someone sees the whole picture. But that proved to be just another fakeout. This week, a Congressional conference committee is considering not whether to ban indecency on the Net--that's a done deal--but merely which flavor of ban to pick.

Hopefully, I don't have to explain to you why you should care. The Internet is not broadcast television or radio, where a scarcity of spectrum was used to justify FCC regulation of "decency". It is, instead, a constellation of printing presses and bookstores, and cannot, must not, be regulated any differently from them. Not too many years from now, all public discourse will take place on the Net (we are almost there now). Most books will be available on the Net. If the First Amendment in its full power is intended to apply only to paper, it will be no more than a historical curiosity in the 21st century.

Where did this idea come from that art and literature should be "decent"? Was Rabelais decent, or Voltaire? Was Shakespeare decent, or Webster or Donne? Was Michelangelo decent? The novels of Balzac, Zola, Joyce, Miller, Nabokov, Burroughs all faced court trials in this country based on their "indecency." The bill before Congress makes no exception for material of scientific, literary, artistic or political value. Heavily pushed by the Christian Coalition, it is intended to cleanse the Net of any speech they themselves would not utter.

No computer connects itself to the Internet without a parental credit card. There must be a role here for parental responsibility. Why it is my problem, rather than yours, if you allow the Net to babysit your kid? Why do your standards forcibly have to become mine? I confess, I said "shit" in front of my kid, and he was free to say "shit" too, from a very young age. Today he is an aerospace engineer, straight as an arrow and engaged to be married--I think I exercised my parental responsibilities pretty well. But the use of the word "shit" on these pages under the new law will potentially earn me a $100,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Worse, any description of sexual activities or organs, even in the context of a page about AIDS, rape, or domestic violence, will be outlawed.

All this because of a minimal issue: cyberporn, which is hard to find on the Net as it is, and would soon be safely kept away from children by a combination of self-rating systems and third party filters like Prodigy, Bessnet or Surfwatch.

Unfortunately, Democrats are as responsible as Republicans for this gross stupidity. Senator Feinstein championed unconstitutional restrictions on online speech in the Senate. Astonishingly, Congresspeople Pat Schroeder and John Conyers put this ridiculous nonsense over the top on a close 17-16 vote among the House conferees.

The most depressing thing I heard was the private word of an un-named legislator that he knew it is unconstitutional but "we'll sort it out." People who voted for this but who privately don't believe in it are allowing a bullet to be fired at your chest on the belief that you are wearing a vest. That vest is the judiciary, who some Congresspeople probably expect will throw this thing out in short order. But a majority of the judges sitting today were appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush, and their commitment to free speech is not always of the highest.

I have volunteered to the ACLU to be a plaintiff in the suit to invalidate the new law when passed. In the meantime, there is a lot you can do--the Senate side of the conference committee hasn't voted yet (but the chances are not good, given their 86-14 support of the CDA). Then the Telcom Reform Act, including the indecency law, goes back to both houses--which may still happen before the end of the year. Please get over to the Center for Democracy and Technology or the Voter's Telecommunications Watch and read their reports and recommendations. Please call your Congressman and Senator to request that they not support this awful mistake. And give your support to the ACLU (email in the last analysis, they may be the only ones aggressively defending your rights.