Masthead CMC Magazine December 1, 1995 / Page 8


Internet Censors Close to Success

by Howard Rheingold (

Syndicated by King Features
Electronic rights: Howard Rheingold
Permission granted by Howard Rheingold to redistribute this column (Internet Censors Close to Success) freely.

The religious right is only weeks away from final victory in its battle to shut American citizens out of the Internet as a medium for uncensored communication.

The story so far: The censorship drive began in February, 1995, with the introduction of S.314, "The Computer Decency Act of 1995" (CDA), by Senator Jim Exon (D-NE), as part of the much larger telecommunications deregulation bill, S 652. Senator Leahy (D-VT) countered CDA with "The Family Empowerment Act," which mandates investigation of technical means for parents to determine what comes into their homes and schools for their children to see, according to their own family's values. CDA passed the Senate on June 14; Leahy's amendment lost. On June 21, opposition to the Exon amendment was voiced even among prominent Republicans, including Representative Gingrich (R-GA).

Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA), and Rep. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the "Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act" (HR 1978), offering an approach that would empower parents, rather than the State, to make decisions abot what is considered decent in every household.

The time has come for Congress to choose between competing amendments. Whether our representatives ultimately go down the road to censorship advocated by the Exon amendment, or choose the parental empowerment approach advocated by the Cox-Wyden amendment, depends on the outcome of the battle for public opinion. In the final weeks of 1995, the campaigns for and against the CDA are approaching the decisive moment. Unless many people who favor freedom of expression make telephone calls, write letters, send faxes, right now, as the pro-censorship forces certainly are doing, the censors are going to win.

An extremist minority is pressing for final legislation that is even more restrictive than the Exon bill. This faction, now openly led by the religious right, seeks to use criminal and civil penalties to hold all Americans' online conversations, web pages, public archives to a rigidly defined standard for decency of content. The bill's zealous backers make it clear that their interpretation of decency in the new medium is far more strict than those standards upheld by the Supreme Court in regard to other forms of speech. Discourse on the Net will be restricted to that which is judged suitable for young children in strict households. The liability issues, if upheld, will mean the death of the online services industry, which has been growing explosively. America will hand off yet another native industry to global competitors. Until and unless the Supreme Court decides that the legislation is unconstitutional, the decency cops, with the full power of the law, will have their day.

In October, 1995, Commerce committee chairman Larry Pressler received a letter signed by The Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schafly, the Reverends Donald Wildmon and Louis Sheldon of the American Family Association and Traditional Values Coalition, and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, that threw the weight of the top organizations of the religious right behind legislation that would establish a Federal decency police and shut down the emerging online communications industry by making online service providers criminally liable for the activities of their customers. The battle of the CDA is part of the sweeping telecommunications deregulation bill (S 652), now approaching the final stages of Congressional decision-making.

Call or fax Newt Gingrich's office now (1-202-225-4501 voice; 1-202-225-4656 fax), and cc Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) (1-202-224-6521 voice; 1-202-228-1245 fax).Tell them you favor the parental control tools proposed in the Cox-White-Wyden amendment to the chilling and unnecessary Exon amendment. Tell them that you, not the the Federal government, are the proper authority to decide what is decent in your household. [CMC TOC]

For more information, check out the Communications Decency Act/Exon information and The Center for Democracy and Technology web sites.

Howard Rheingold is author of The Virtual Community (New York: Wiley, 1993) and a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 1995 by Howard Rheingold. All Rights Reserved.

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