Net freedom ring

Mike Godwin, legal pit bull for free speech online, tells his war stories in the new book 'Cyber Rights.'

By David Hudson
Published July 1, 1998 6:13PM (EDT)

After a long crescendo, spiced with intermittent foreshadowing, the emotional climax of Mike Godwin's "Cyber Rights" hits almost exactly two-thirds of the way through. When it does, it's robust, invigorating and as deliciously chock-full of varied personalities and startling quotations as any chapter in this summer's other Net-related page turner, "Burn Rate."

But before savoring Mike Godwin's first-person, blow-by-blow account of the fiasco that led to Time magazine's 1995 "Cyberporn"cover story and its potentially disastrous aftermath, you're going to have to eat your vegetables. "Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age" is, after all, an instructional book with an argument to convey -- a sort of cross between a dry, textbookish primer and a lively personal history.

Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a self-proclaimed civil libertarian, maintains that the Internet "marks a permanent change in American and world culture. Call it 'radical pluralism.'" If the United States or any other country were ever in danger of falling victim to the tyranny of the majority, the Net, with its ability to empower tens of millions who would never be able to afford a printing press or a radio or television station of their own, is just the right medicine.

The reader doesn't have to swallow this assertion whole in order to recognize the historically demonstrated validity of Godwin's second point. The Net's wide-open informational free-for-all terrifies a lot of people, some of them powerful -- and some of whom want to put a lid on it. Once Godwin outlines the severity of this "Net backlash" with numerous examples of legislative attacks on freedom of Internet speech, he spells out quite convincingly why such efforts are dangerous to the public good.

Along the way, Godwin must teach the reader -- whom he assumes (especially correctly in the case of this reviewer) is a layperson, not particularly well-versed in even the basics of the legal profession. Yes, you will have to wade through a plethora of historical cases, the nuances of their various interpretations and the subsequent ramifications of their outcomes. And yet, you will also certainly be aware that this stuff, like broccoli, is good for you. Anyone who's ever posted to a public forum online has probably wondered at least once what constitutes libel, how much of another person's copyrighted work may be freely quoted and so on.

Godwin does his best to pull the reader through this gray legalese with the jazziest prose he can muster -- and, more effectively, by relating his personal experiences with each variety of legal issue that arises. It's at this point that "Cyber Rights" may become problematic for some readers.

Readers of "Cyber Rights" will range from those who have never heard of Mike Godwin to those who have tangoed with him online at some point or have at least lurked silently as the debate raged. Whatever the number in the first category, those falling into the second are legion. Godwin has been online so long he's had a celebrated law that predicts the course of online discussions named after him.

"In both my personal and professional online life, I'm known to be an acerbic critic of those I disagree with," Godwin has written recently here at Salon. "He takes every aspect of every sentence that somebody has written and provides the refutation in detail," notes fellow digerati David R. Johnson, co-director of the Cyberspace Law Institute. The rhetorical approach can win as many enemies as friends. In her epic history of the Well, where much of the online "action" in "Cyber Rights" unfolds, Katie Hafner refers to Godwin as "an outspoken member who was not universally liked."

Those Godwin has angered over the years with his seemingly cold persistence will most likely be the ones to raise questions about the versions he presents of the multitude of cases and controversies in which he has played an active role. Starting, for example, with the one that put him on the map, the 1990 raid by the U.S. Secret Service on Steve Jackson Games.

Godwin claims to have brought national attention to the case, and his account may sound self-serving at first. But if you compare it to Bruce Sterling's in his book "The Hacker Crackdown," you'll find that Sterling is far more laudatory of Godwin's efforts than Godwin himself -- who merely takes the opportunity in "Cyber Rights" to turn his experience into "A Primer on Talking to the Traditional Press."

Throughout "Cyber Rights," it becomes clear that what makes Godwin a sometimes unpleasant online sparring partner is precisely what has catapulted him to the front lines in the seemingly endless battles for free speech on the Net. It hasn't been just that, as Sterling puts it, "here was one guy who, in the midst of complete murk and confusion, genuinely understood everything he was talking about," but also his tenacity and his insistence on wrestling every last breath out of his opponents' arguments.

It's not that he doesn't enjoy it, either. Anyone who's ever wondered just what the big deal was when Time ran a sensational cover story about pornography on the Net -- given that so many other magazines, newspapers and television networks were also playing up the same story -- will fully understand what was at stake after reading Godwin's swift day-by-day narrative of that week in June 1995.

It must have been a heady time for Mike Godwin. Juggling Time and Newsweek on the phone, feeding quotes to the New York Times and the Washington Post and appearing on Nightline is a lot of fame and glory all of a sudden for a lawyer specializing in arcane First Amendment issues and how they're played out on the Net. Godwin is so taken with this chapter of his life, he tells the story twice, albeit from different angles.

This last third of the book segues seamlessly from the discrediting of the study on which the Time story was based -- and with it, a crucial centerpiece of the religious right's attack on the Net as manifested in the Communications Decency Amendment -- to the defeat of the CDA itself. Here, Godwin achieves the balance of narrative drive and outright schooling most readers will have yearned for throughout the book's first 200 pages.

Godwin is passionate about values like truth, freedom and justice, and there are times when that passion can carry his rhetoric into territory some in the late '90s might deem hokey -- such as when he calls for a "Digital American Revolution" at a CDA victory rally.

But the same passion is evident in the patient perseverance of his explication, and yes, in that infamous online discussion style. It's only at the end of his book that Godwin finally asserts outright what the reader has suspected all along: "The decisions we make about the Internet don't affect just the Internet -- they are answers to basic questions about the relationship each citizen has to the government and about the extent to which we trust one another with the full range of fundamental rights granted by the Constitution."

As the Net converges with other media and plays a greater role in more lives, those answers will only grow more critical.

David Hudson

David Hudson writes the English-language News Digest for Spiegel Online.

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