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The Denver Post

Censoring Internet is indecent

February 22, 1996
Section: Denver & The West
Page: B-06
   Hans Bjordahl

On Feb. 8, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. The law's primary effect will be to stir the businesses of cable television, telephone service and the Internet into one huge competitive soup to spark competition. Just as long-distance phone companies compete for your business today, so too will cable operators, regional phone companies and Internet access providers in the near future.

However, this bill contained another, less-publicized element that could conceivably have far greater effect, a rider called the "Communications Decency Act," which will ban "indecency" on the Internet. Not "pornography," not "obscenity" but "indecency." Indecency, as a legal standard, is frighteningly broad. For example, it could be argued the phrase "The U.S. Congress is a den of prostitutes turning legislative tricks for PAC money" is indecent. The religious right, glowing over the passage of this bill, plans to use it to ban the very discussion of abortion on the Internet.

This legislation is appalling, pathetic and insulting. It threatens to cripple the Internet by robbing it of the very thing that makes it viable: the free flow of ideas.

When it comes to the Internet, the government has shown time again that it just doesn't get it. The Clinton administration's "clipper chip" fiasco made it the laughing stock of the networking community. The U.S. government's criminalization of cryptography expert Phil "The Weasel" Zimmerman ran out of steam for lack of common sense. The White House's current white paper on the enforcement of copyrights on the 'Net threatens to make forwarding an e-mailed knock-knock joke of the week to your co-worker a federal crime. The Communications Decency Act follows the proud federal tradition of government-cocooned know-nothings attempting to legislate what they do not even vaguely understand.

As the startling implications of the act come to light, the movement to repeal the measure is gaining ground. Wired magazine deserves credit for its coverage of this latest fiasco from the Fat Boys in the Capitol. The ACLU, at long last picking a relevant battle, has teamed up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to file suit against the act in federal court.

The Internet, ironically enough, was founded by the government as a military communications network, later becoming a means for scientists and engineers to share information. It since has grown beyond anyone's wildest expectations. What was originally conceived as an electronic outpost beholden to the state evolved into a virtual village, then a virtual colony, then a full-fledged virtual nation. The Internet now transcends every border in the world and has evolved into a dynamic, powerful society with its own culture, its own dialect and its own sovereign identity.

With the Communications Decency Act, the U.S. government has made it clear that it intends to quash the insolent "free exchange of ideas" taking place within its former colony. The U.S. government, however, like the British government 200 years ago, is seriously underestimating its foe. The Internet, a worldwide medium, is bigger than the U.S. government. The Internet, a decentralized structure famous for its ability to "interpret censorship as damage and route around it," is faster than the U.S. government. The Internet - built, maintained and led by the world's most savvy, skilled and visionary individuals - is smarter than the U.S. government. The Internet is too inspiring, too amazing to be left in the hands of such blustering, ignorant politicians.

Anyone who's wandered the Internet's wide-open electronic spaces and taken part in the exhilarating free flow of information understands what is at stake. We must now defend what we've worked so hard to build. It's time to prepare to interpret the government as damage and route around it.

Hans Bjordahl is editor of the Internet publication Zone Interactive and co-creator of the Cafe Angst comic strip, which runs in the Sunday Denver Post.

All content 1996- The Denver Post and may not be republished without permission.
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