The Internet, the Middle East, and You: Censorship in Cyberspace

By M, James | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 1997 | Go to article overview

The Internet, the Middle East, and You: Censorship in Cyberspace


M, James, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The Internet, the Middle East, and You: Censorship in Cyberspace

A great strength of the Internet, and in the minds of some the greatest danger, is its almost total freedom from censorship. Anyone in the world with access to a computer and a telephone line can publish information, opinions or even pictures, video, sound clips or music, no matter how abhorrent that material may be to some viewers.

One person can publish news reports in a form that can be seen almost instantly by millions. If Binyamin Netanyahu bulldozes an Arab home or if his troops shoot unarmed protestors, the sound and pictures can be on the Wide World Web within minutes. Examples can be found at http://www.birzeit.edu.

If Secretary of State Dean Rusk says that the attack on the USS Liberty was no accident, those words in his own voice can be on the Web for anyone to hear. These can be found at http://www.ussliberty.org/jim/ussliberty/. Dissemination of news no longer depends upon a publisher willing to risk the wrath of the Anti-Defamation league or a myriad of other would-be censors and thought police.

Inherent in the new freedoms, however, are some obvious risks. Bigots, hate groups and Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine enjoy exactly the same access to the Internet as do the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, the USS Liberty Association and Birzeit University. And there's the rub. To keep the bigots and pornographers under control, more and more well-meaning people will be manipulated into calling for a gag on everything that does not meet current definitions of political correctness.

Among those already seeking to control speech on the Internet are, for instance, the Simon Weisenthal Center. That group has campaigned to block what it calls "hate speech" on the Internet. Exactly what is "hate speech"? Some argue that opposition to the release of Jonathan Pollard or reports of civil rights abuses in Palestine are "hate speech." Where does a free society draw this line?

The Communications Decency Act

Unfortunately, would-be censors include our own elected government.

The fear of unwelcome opinions and especially of pornography brought pressure on the Congress early last year to create the "Communications Decency Act" (CDA) as an addition to the then-pending telecommunications deregulation bill. While proponents portray the new law as a simple way to keep kids from seeing pornography, in fact it is much broader and much more dangerous than that.

The CDA goes far beyond simply banning pornographic images. The new law makes it illegal for anyone to "depict or describe" anything "indecent" anywhere on the Internet. Violators risked up to $200,000 in fines and two years in prison. The penalties could be imposed for such simple offenses as using "dirty words" in e-mail or newsgroup postings.

The law makes no exceptions for "redeeming social value" or for literary, scientific, artistic or political merit. Curse in your e-mail and go to jail. Quote from parts of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or a "safe sex" pamphlet and risk fine or imprisonment. Internet discussion of birth control, abortion or AIDS could suddenly be criminal.

While the law might well shackle Americans, the drafters seemed unaware that the Internet is an international phenomenon. Congress might cause Americans to be jailed for using four-letter words in cyberspace, but the new law would have absolutely no effect upon users outside the United States. Nor would it have any effect on what material entered the U.S. from abroad. If the goal was to protect children, as the drafters claimed, this objective was missed completely.

Worse, the CDA outlawed language and pictures on the Internet that are perfectly permissible in books, magazines or motion pictures. It made the local community the judge of what was permissible so that any small-town prosecutor could bring charges against material that was quite acceptable elsewhere.

Prosecutions were not necessarily limited to whomever created the offending material. …

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