Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Elephant and the Net Cruiser: Regulating Communication on the Net

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Elephant and the Net Cruiser: Regulating Communication on the Net

Article excerpt

The Way You Think ...

"The way you think about things shapes the way your reality is." Ruby Maverick, a character in my novel, Summer of Love, says that when she challenges a far-future time traveler to examine the assumptions underlying his ontology of spacetime. The concept could very well be applied to recent attempts by the United States government to censor speech on the Net.

I'm honored to submit this address to the Library and Information Technology Association. In 1992, I attended the American Library Association conference in San Francisco where I heard presentations by Hans Moravec, Bruce Sterling, and David Brin at the LITA President's Program. Among other things, the discussion then raised the issue of censorship of speech on the Net, but focused more on the censorship implicit in the commercialization of cyberspace, the increasing dependence of university libraries on funding from big business, and the domination of the public's attention span by a dwindling number of hugely powerful arbiters of taste.

When talking about big business, I've developed Neil Postman's wonderful term "technopoly" into my own buzzword, "the technopolistic plutocracy," and I think librarians and academics should never waver in their vigilance against encroachment by the technopolistic plutocracy upon the intellectual integrity and experimentation that have been the benchmark of scholarship in the United States. Now, three years later, censorship of speech on the Net is still an issue of vital concern. Today I want to shift the focus from the censorship implicit in technopolization to a nasty and quite explicit piece of proposed legislation in the U.S. Senate known as the Exon Bill.

The Exon Bill: What Is the Senator Thinking?

The Exon bill mandates that anyone using a modem who makes, transmits, or otherwise makes available any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or any other communication that is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent will be subject to up to two years in jail or $100,000 in fines. The Senate has just passed the telecommunications deregulation bill, of which the Exon bill is a part, and observers believe that the House is likely to pass some form of the bill, as well. Similar bills have been proposed in New Zealand and Singapore, so Senator Exon is not alone in the effort to mandate morality on the Net.

The way you think about things... Listen to enthusiasts of the Net and you would conclude the online experience is the most exciting intellectual development since, say, the Renaissance. Mike Godwin, online counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, "For the first time in history we have a many-to-many medium in which you don't have to be rich to have access and in which you don't have to win the approval of an editor or publisher to speak your mind. UseNet and the Internet... hold the promise of guaranteeing for the first time in history that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of the press means as much to each individual as it does to... the New York Times."

The way you think about things. . . But what if extremist anti-government militias use e-mail to distribute hate speech, together with instructions on how to make a bomb? What if sexually explicit materials of questionable literary value are distributed over a network maintained by a distinguished university library? What if a university student broadcasts on a bulletin board a fictional account of a violent assault using a fellow student's name? What if publishers located in Finland distribute in Iowa computer-generated graphic images simulating child pomography? What if your ten-year-old daughter is cruising the Net looking for information about koala bears and she stumbles onto the Penthouse Web site? What if your eleven-year-old son is cruising the Net and he's looking for the Penthouse Web site?

Well, several of these scenarios have actually happened, and the others may be disturbing. …

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