The word "censorship" has popped up so often in public debate in the United States that we're a little numb to its use. It's been tossed around, often loosely, in arguments over TV violence, pop-culture excess, Madonna's literary output and National Endowment for the Arts grants.
But now, with the enactment of the new 1996 Telecommunications Act, we're suddenly faced with the real thing. This is not an argument over public funding, "chilling effects" or political correctness. It is a naked instance of brute government censorship, fueled by fear and ignorance.
The new Communications Decency Act, tacked onto the omnibus telecommunications bill and signed on Feb. 8 by President Clinton, applies fines of up to $250,000 and prison terms of up to two years for "indecent" expression online. What's "indecent"? Legislators want you to think that their law is aimed only at the most despicable child pornographers. But the legal standard they've adopted is the broadest of brushes. It's far more inclusive than "obscenity"; it means pretty much whatever your local judge says -- really, whatever any local judge says, since the Internet globalizes all "local community standards."
Under the new law, a publication might find that the same articles it can freely publish in print are illegal to distribute on the Net. An online discussion group might find its participants arrested for talking to one another. Web publishers, bulletin-board sysops, chat participants, e-mail senders are all breaking the law -- as I am right now -- should they dare utter a "fuck." Or post information about birth control. Or reprint "Howl," "Ulysses" or "Catcher in the Rye."
How did we end up with this absurd, unconstitutional and probably unenforceable piece of legislation? If you followed the mainstream press coverage, it was a mere footnote to what we were told was the "real" story of the telecommunications bill -- a massive "deregulation" of the media business opening the way for a free-for-all in which telephone companies, cable TV operators and media conglomerates will all invade one another's turf, seek global domination and supposedly provide consumers with more choices.
The thinking behind the bill seems to be: while we're deregulating corporate behavior, why don't we regulate individual behavior, too? If we're worried about what our children read and see, why should we take responsibility ourselves when our legislators and courts offer to play nanny for us?
In a way we should be thankful to the backers of the law. Spurred by inflated press accounts of "cyberporn" and fearful of a new medium they don't understand, they have exposed just how fragile freedom of expression online really is. They have given us a chance, early in the development of this new medium, to fight for its right to be more open, democratic and responsive than the older media it increasingly competes with.
We know what happens when the censors move in on a young medium because it's happened so many times before. The technology of "many-to-many" online communications has the potential to mimic many of the existing media -- broadcast TV and radio, magazines and newspapers, "snail mail" and books and the telephone. Laws like the Communications Decency Act aim to stuff the new medium into the straitjackets of the old. And if we treat it like TV, the Net will surely become like TV.
The good news is that the nature of the technology itself -- which bypasses international borders and makes centralized control difficult -- renders laws like this almost irrelevant. Tools for individual users will soon accomplish whatever kind of personal filtering of "indecent" messages you want. (Intelligent agents will allow U.S. senators to block out all the porn they want from their own computers; meanwhile, I will be sure to bozo-filter Rush Limbaugh.)
The bad news is that we face long and expensive court battles to preserve our rights, with no guarantee that judges will uphold freedom of expression or recognize that computer networks are the kind of press worthy of First Amendment protection.
The battle is on now. If in a year or two you look out and find that the noisy, anarchic ferment of today's Net has become a mute commercial wasteland, you'll know precisely whom to blame.