Censorship and the Internet:

Freedom of speech has been one of the most important and fought over freedoms that this country has ever known. Since its commercial inception in 1992, the Internet, has been a topic of debate for the past six years. The wide spread argument has to do with the content that the Internet provides. So, when congress began it’s hellish quest of censoring one of the worlds fastest growing sources of information it was no wonder that an anti-censor campaign would begin. This bitter argument has been debated, legislated, and written about very extensively over the last couple of years. Although most people agree that the internet contains some content that children should not view, censoring the entire internet will cause more of a problem because it will infringe on the First Amendment and other civil liberties that Americans have fought and bled over for the past 200 years.

Almost three years ago, Congress approved the Communications Decency Act, (CDA) which “was designed to protect children by prohibiting “indecent” speech or images from being sent through cyberspace.”(Quittner) This law seems somewhat harmless at a first glance until you begin to read some of its clauses. One of the biggest groups that combated this issue was the CIEC, or Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition. The CIEC soon began to find problems with this bill as the so maticulously stated on their web site “It is also important to note that the CDA is not about child pornography, obscenity, or using the Internet to stalk children. These are already illegal under current law.”(CIEC) The article then states “instead, the CDA prohibits posting “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials in a public forum on the Internet — including web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists.”(CIEC) This law would prohibit “texts of classic fiction such as the “Catcher in the Rye”, “Ulysees”, and the “7 dirty words”, and other materials which, although offensive to some, enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment if published in a newspaper, magazine, or a book, or in the public square.”(CIEC) A very heated topic indeed for the CIEC and the rest of the Internet community who where baffled by the contradictoriness of congress’s new law.
One of the most concerned online and also published magazines in the world that has anything to do with the Internet is Hot-Wired magazine. This publication has been one of the most informative, if not the most informative, magazine published online and off. Hot-Wired, has received numerous industry awards such as Best Online Publication, Computer Press Award and Top Web Sites of ’96, Time Magazine. It is also now attars more monthly readers than the Wall Street Journal Interactive, and ABCNews.com. Hot-Wired, now famous for rallying one of the most infamous protest against Internet censorship published an article describing the protest. “Within minutes of last Tuesday’s news that a House committee had voted to incorporate an “indecency” clause into the proposed telecom bill, a collective panic spread through San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch.”(Irwin) The author of the article then stated “Informed by word of mouth, a handful of pamphlets, and, most efficiently, the Internet, more than 500 protester gathered on the 14th of December in the heart of San Francisco’s Internet community – SOMA’s South Park – to collectively oppose indecency standards that could jail or substantially fine anyone who chooses to use certain “profane” words on the Net.”(Irwin) One of the Internets most prolific advocates for freedom of speech in Cyberspace is Mike Goodwin.
Mr. Goodwin is the founder of the EFF, (Electronic Frontier Foundation) a non-profit organization that deals with the protections of civil liberties in the information age. He was one of the many honored guests that attended the protest rally in San Francisco and was quoted as saying “Take a moment now and listen.” Goodwin ripped a copy of the First Amendment in half. “That’s the sound of what the United States Congress has been doing to the Constitution in the last few months.”(Irwin) “Similar protests occurred in Seattle and New York on Thursday, following the December 12th Internet Day of Protest which flooded Congressional switchboards with thousands of pleas to halt Internet censorship.”(Irwin)
The many people who placed those calls to congress have now been working for a variety of Internet civil right organizations. Their goals are to stop congress from completely outlawing First Amendment rights over the Internet. Such non-profit groups as the CDT (Center for Democracy and Technology) mission statement states “The Center for Democracy and Technology is a leading advocate for democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age.” It goes on to say “Backed by staff expertise in relevant law and technology, CDT seeks practical solutions to problems and is dedicated to building broad consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.”(CDT) We are at the “cusp of a new age-an age that holds out the promise for reinvigorating democracy and civil liberties, at home and around the globe.”(CDT) What we decide today will ultimately effect the digital age in the future, “what’s at steak is nothing less than the future rights and responsibilities of individuals.”(CDT)
To understand the complexity of the problem you must begin to understand the “number” aspect as to how many people use the Internet. One Internet user described it best when he said “Cyberspace, a common name for the Net, has been defined by one author as being “made up of millions of people who communicate with one another through computers.” It is not just people that make up cyberspace. It is also “information stored on millions of computers worldwide, accessible to others through telephone lines and other communication channels” that “make up what is known as cyberspace.” The same author went on to say “The term itself is elusive, since it is not so much a physical entity as a description of an intangible.”(Toball)
Many people have this preconceived notion that the Internet is just a web browser pointing you to your favorite site. This is a completely incorrect thought. Toball continues to state “The complexity of the Internet is demonstrated through its many components. The most readily identifiable part is the World Wide Web (WWW). This consists of web pages that can be accessed through the use of a web browser. Web pages are created using a basic programming language. Another easily identified section of the Internet is e-mail. Once again it is a relatively user-friendly communication device. Some other less publicized sections of the Internet include: Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which allows real time chatting to occur among thousands of people, Gopher, which works similarly to the WWW but for a more academic purpose, and File Transfer Protocol (FTP), which allows the transfer of files from one computer to another. Another service that is not Internet but is carried along with it in many instances is Usenet or News. In Usenet there are many newsgroups which center their conversations on many varied topics. For example, alt.music.beatles would focus the discussion on the Beatles. This would be done through posts or articles almost like letters sent into a large pot where everyone can read and reply. Many controversial newsgroups exist and they are created easily. It is possible to transfer obscene and pornographic material through these newsgroups.”
This is exactly what parents and congress feel is the heart of the problem. Yes, it is true that you can receive, view, down load, and listen to a variety of pornography, but on the same token you can also do the same with most other topics.
There are many answers to the problem of Internet censorship; the only problem is that the answers require most people to become more computer literate. As one author stated “While this theme might push some buttons for the many parents who recognize that their children are more computer literate than themselves and who fear their own ignorance.”(Steele)
There is a lot of commercial software such as Searchlight, and Surf Watcher that are available to parents so that they can restrict access to sites that they deem to be “inappropriate” for their children. Howard Rheingold is a journalist, editor and internationally recognized expert on emerging technologies. As a high-tech social historian and futurist, he has established himself as an effective translator of the long-term impacts of technology, computing and telecommunications. He also was one of the honored guests at the now infamous, San Francisco protests where he stated “We can protect our own children. I can determine what is decent for my daughter to know. It is not for my neighbors to impose their standards on her.”(Irwin) “If we are to make the Internet a powerful resource for learning, we must give parents and teachers the tools they need to make the Internet safe for children.”(President, Bill Clinton)
Another solution that has been proposed is for pornographic related sites to impose a (. XX) Suffix. The debate on this choice has to do with it being unconstitutional, because it would force a business to one sector of the Internet thereby infringing on their rights to do commerce without being classified to a certain category. The opposite side of this debate is the fact that most things are separated by various suffixes such as, (. EDU), (. GOV), and (. COM) help the user know where he/she is going. By implementing such a standard would be a great victory for those who do not want their children visiting inappropriate sites because they would be able to restrict the end suffixes in the web browser.

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“On Wednesday June 12, 1996 at 9:00 am, a panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia, PA granted the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition’s (CIEC) request for a preliminary injunction against the Communications Decency Act (CDA). In a unanimous decision, the judges ruled that the CDA would unconstitutionally restrict speech on the Internet.”(CIEC) Writing for the court, John Paul Stevens, one of the Justices, attacked the CDA by stating “As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it.”(CIEC) He then went on to say “The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”(CIEC)
This was the first battle that the Internet community had one, and as to be expected a variety of famous people had something to say. “The Internet is an incredibly powerful medium for freedom of speech and freedom of expression that should be protected. It is the biggest change in human communications since the printing press, and is being used to educate our children, promote electronic commerce, provide valuable health care information, and allow citizens to keep in touch with their government.”(President, Bill Clinton) Bill Gates, founder and C.E.O. of Microsoft, the largest Software Company in the world, stated “This is a great victory for anyone who cares about freedom of expression or the future of the Internet. Freedom of speech on the Internet deserves the same protection as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly. “We support thoughtful efforts to ensure that children and other users are not exposed to objectionable material, but Microsoft believes that technology can provide a much more effective safeguard without restricting the free flow of ideas and opinions on the Internet.”
For all the bad that the Internet contains, it also has a lot of good. By restricting the Internets “freedoms” we would begin to suppress the hundreds of the Internets sub-cultures. These groups of individuals express themselves in a variety of ways that some people could find offensive. Taking away how they choose to describe themselves would go against all that this country stands for. This country was founded on the principle that people have the right to choose and express themselves in away that they fell is right. The Constitution was written for this very purpose and in it states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”(1st Amendment)
These words stipulate exactly what has been law in this country for 200 years. “Therefore it would be unconstitutional for any sort of censorship to occur on the Internet and affiliated services.”(Atkinson) This statement supports what I have been trying to express this entire paper, freedom of speech is a right that many in the world don’t know, but is something that all Americans know and are taught. By picking up an American history book it isn’t difficult to find many examples of what happened when the citizens of this country where forced to give up this right. They took up arms, and fought. I’m not saying that the citizens of this country are going to pickup arms against the government and demolish it, but they very well could.
If we are to allow the censorship of the Internet who is to say what will be next, tomorrow someone finds a book offensive and they banned it. It doesn’t sound to far-fetched to me because it has already happened. Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye these are examples of our First Amendment rights thrown into the gutter and trampled on. If we allow people to tell us what is indecent and what is not, we will all surly become mindless drones with no valid opinion on any subject. This is a country that I would not want to live in.

Because of the First Amendment, I am able to safely criticize our government about their tactics and doings. We elected these people to office to speak for us; we had better make sure that they are doing their job. I think that Justice, John Paul Stevens, said it best when he stated “The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”
In conclusion I would just like to add, the Internet is a powerful tool that can help a variety of people and citizens of this country and world. There is no doubt in my mind that the Internet is a valuable research and educational sources that can help students achieve what they wish. Parents must teach their children to filter out what they consider to be immoral and offensive, for this is the job of a parent not the government. As with all-powerful tools, we must learn to harness it and use it to better further our society as a whole. Taking away one of the United States most valued rights will never be the answer, but hopefully with the help and support of the Internet community and congress, we will be able to achieve a common goal. A goal that I’m sure will help us achieve greatness in the “Super Information Age.”

Works Cited
Bradford, Bryan and Mark Krumholz. “Telecommunications and Decency: Big Brother goes Digital.” Business Today Spring 1996 : 12-16.


Gates, Bill. “Searching for middle ground in online censorship”
http://www.microsoft.com/corpinfo/bill-g/column/1996essay/censorship.htm. 27 Mar. 1996.


Irwin, Heather. “Geeks Take to the Streets” http://www.hotwired.com/special/indecent/rally.html.


Jefferson, Thomas. “Bill Of Rights.” The Constitution of the United States. http://Constitution.by.net/uSA/BillOfRights.html. 21 Apr. 1996.


McCullagh, Declan. “PLAGUE OF FREEDOM” Internet Underground Aug 96 – Issue 09 http://www.eff.org/~declan/global/reports/plague.073196.txt. 31 July 1996.


Silberman, Steve. “Defending the First Amendment.” http://www.hotwired.com/special/lawsuit.


“Silencing the Net–The Threat to Freedom of Expression Online.” Human Rights Watch May 1996, Vol. 8, No. 2 (G).
Steele, Shari. “Taking a Byte Out of the First Amendment. How Free Is Speech in Cyberspace?” Human Rights Vol. 23, No.2. http://www.eff.org/pub/Censorship/human_rights_960420.article. Spring 1996.


Sterling, Bruce. “Short History of the Internet.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Feb1993. gopher://gopher.isoc.org:70/00/internet/history/short.history.of.internet. 17 Apr. 1996.

http://www.eff.org/pub/Censorship/human_rights_960420.article
Steele
http://www.hotwired.com/special/indecent/rally.html
Irwin
http://www.ciec.org/victory.shtml
CIEC
http://www.microsoft.com/billgates/columns/1996essay/essay960327.htm
Bill Gates
http://www.cdt.org/mission.html
Center for Democracy and Technology
http://www.ciec.org/SC_appeal/970626_Clinton.html
Bill Clinton
http://cgi.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1997/dom/970707/nation.unshackling_n.html
Time Magazine Joshua Quinttner