Chapter IX

A Compass for Cyberspace

This chapter touches upon the introduction of every major communications medium: the book, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, and the Internet. With each powerful, new medium comes fear, uncertainty and doubt. Leaders, fearing the untamed spread of distasteful or dangerous ideas have been historically too quick to place new controls upon these new technologies, saying they are different than that which came before.

The printed medium enjoys the full protection of the First Amendment in America today. With the exception of a few categories of speech--libel, obscenity, and speech which causes immediate harm--all is permitted in the name of free speech. However, this was not achieved overnight. Books have had to contend with Popes, kings, presidents, dictators, and czars throughout history who have found them and the ideas they spread dangerous.

In 1535 King Francois I, fearing the potential for the new medium of printing to spread blasphemy, false doctrine, and political opposition, banned all books--upon the pain of hanging.

When the telephone was first introduced in France, there was uncertainty as to whether women should be allowed to be operators, subjected to the anonymous talk of individuals of the opposite sex.

In America, we had our own doubts about the telephone. In an obscenity case early in the century, the court worried that wires could be crossed, launching offensive speech into a polite family, minding its own business.

In the early part of this century America was still banning books. Under Postal Obscenity Law, the network of mail was purged of filthy writings by Joyce, Nabokov, Miller, Hemingway, Freud, Balzac, Zola--to name a few.

The Internet is a digital library...

... and should be afforded the full protection of the First Amendment.

Rather than hastily run in and weigh down this fantastic new medium with fear, uncertainty, and doubt and concomitant legislation and litigation, let us focus on the the true problem.

Among consenting adults in a free society, we should all be able to say what we want. Many people say "no, the Internet is like television and should be controlled as such." The Internet is not like television.

The television is a dumb box, arguably the stupidest appliance in the house--as compared to the coffee machine and microwave, which contain computer chips. The television is a box which tunes into a limited number of channels and pumps video and sound into the home. It requires no real interaction other than adjusting the sound or switching the channel.

When the courts first allowed the government to step in and regulate television, placing controls on what could be broadcast, they offered two justifications: "scarcity" and "pervasiveness." There was a scarce bandwidth, allowing for a limited number of channels. And the medium was pervasive--it pumped into the home, making it difficult to avoid offensive speech.

The Internet is different. There is no "scarcity" problem, as the medium supports an endless number of publishers. And, unlike television, information must be actively sought out. It is like the world of print. It is a global network of computers talking to each other. The Internet is fundamentally unlike broadcasting.

Admittedly, there is a societal problem with making certain ideas and pictures which are not suitable for children too readily available. But with the smart box which plugs into the Internet--the computer--such speech can be easily channeled. There are technological solutions for this problem which Congress thinks can be better handled with new laws. Rather than try to wipe the entire Internet clean and make it into Disneyworld, parents should be given the power to block speech that they think is unsuitable for their children.

In the 1950's Michigan passed a law banning all books it deemed to be "harmful to children." In 1957, in Butler v. Michigan the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to "reduce the level of reading to only that which was fit for children." Justice Frankfurter said it was like "burning down the house to roast a pig."

On the drawing boards are rating systems for the Web and in stores are filtering software packages, such as Surfwatch, which block out all adult-oriented sites. Parents can also subscribe to family oriented online services such as Prodigy. (See Cannon's Parental Supervision FAQ.)

Soon all forms of information--television, cable, radio, Internet--will be pumped into the home digitally, through a single feed. Some would like to cleanse "indecency" from all these media, throughout the world.

Others would like to see rating systems put on and controls implemented, such that the homeowner can make the choice. The parents can set the feed to filter out sex and violence. And consenting adults can talk about, listen to, read, and publish whatever is legal in the world of print.

Relevant links

An interesting site about banned books

On the Ethical Spectacle

The following three organizations are actively involved in the political debate, offering some of the best CDA resources and updates on their pages.
The PICS rating system
Covered heavily in the ACLU v. Reno hearing, Platform for Internet Content Selection is an interesting rating system that allows parents to control the kind of information that enters the house, while keeping the Net free and unfettered by censors. (For more on the courtroom discussions, see our reports on Day 4 and Day 5 of the hearing.)

Cannon's Parental Supervision FAQ
A comprehensive site about current parental solutions to be the problem of children accessing adult-oriented material on the Internet.

For the whole story, printed on pages and bound into a book, see
Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace