Indecent Proposal: Censor The Net

Jim Exon does not want to be known as the censor of cyberspace. The Democratic senator from Nebraska has insisted that his aim is protecting children, not muzzling the millions of people accustomed to electronic free speech. But last Thursday his so-called Communications Decency Act passed the Senate Commerce Committee. Despite his protestations, if this bill is made into law, the digital frontier will instantly be transformed from our most wide-open preserve of untrammeled speech to a place where even common forms of expression are outlawed.

Exon's bill - actually an amendment tacked to the telecommunications bill-has already undergone considerable changes. The initial version spread the liability for "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent" speech between the originator and the online service that moved the message. Critics noted that it was impossible for the service providers to read the gigabits of data that pass through their portals; in effect, the bill would criminalize the entire Internet. So Exon exempted them from prosecution. Responsibility for keeping the Net clean now rests on those who post messages, send letters, maintain web sites and distribute documents and files. The penalty for filth is a fine and possibly a jail term.

The heart of this matter is how our laws should apply to cyberspace. Should restrictions on electronic expression be fairly tight, as with radio and television? Or should cyberspeech be as unrestrained as that in magazines, newspapers and private conversations? Currently, something like the latter standard applies-anything goes, short of obscenity, and people have been prosecuted for online excesses. But Exon wants to apply the broadcast rule, where generally less offensive acts of indecency are also banned. The legal definition of indecency includes the "seven dirty words" that George Carlin identified as unutterable over the air.

But cyberspace doesn't work like broadcast, where a few licensed stations beam out to thousands or millions of viewers who have no idea what's coming up next. Various parts of cyberspace resemble postal mail, coffee klatsches, public lectures, academic seminars, locker-room banter and print periodicals-not broadcast. In none of these venues would we welcome regulations where fines and prison sentences would be doled out for uttering certain expletives that, though once considered scandalous, are now fairly ubiquitous in our culture.

What if the bill passes? Certain commercial servers that distribute pictures of unclad human beings, like those run by Penthouse or Playboy, would of course be shut down immediately, or risk prosecution. But so would any amateur web site that features nudity, sex talk or rough language. Posting any of the seven dirty words in a Usenet discussion group -and I can verify that those words now appear routinely -could make one liable for a $50,000 fine and six months in the pokey. And if a magazine that commonly runs some of those nasty words in its pages-say, The New Yorker-decided to put its contents online, its leaders would be liable for a $100,000 fine and two years in jail. Exon's bill apparently would also "criminalize private mail," says Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center of Democracy and Technology. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, agrees: "[If Exon's bill passes] I can call my brother on the phone and say anything-but if I say it on the Internet it's illegal . . . "

The phone analogy is interesting because Exon's amendment is literally an addition to previous legislation regulating the content of phone conversations. Thus it treats digital transmissions, sent to or accessed by consenting adults, with the stringent restrictions on the language used in harassing or obscene phone calls. Senator Leahy attributes the overkill to a Congress bent on acting without regard to consequences. "None of us want children to be delving into pornography, but let's not deal with it in a way that cripples one of the best communications successes in decades," he says. "I'm not going to close down a beautiful city park because periodically some idiot comes to the corner and shouts obscenities."

So how do we protect our children from the pictures of naked ladies, the discussions of bestiality and the rough language that currently characterize the Net? Even Exon has admitted that his bill probably won't stop the smut he so urgently wants to eliminate. There are high-tech dodges around anything that the simple minds of the Senate can concoct. We would have better results by implementing some newly proposed technological solutions, ranging from software that filters out possibly objectionable material to special services that present only a bowdlerized version of the Net to junior web-surfers. And then, there's always that remedy in which censorious legislators never seem to have confidence: parental guidance.

Yes it is true-some of us who have participated in the explosive growth of the Net might have been turned off by some of the scatologies and tasteless excesses. But anyone who has spent time using this new form of communication also understands that this is a minor annoyance compared with its positive aspects. The most exciting of these is the Net's unrestrained freedom of expression. After the sound-bite smog of broadcast media, this passionate embrace of ideas and creativity is clean, fresh air. This could have been, and still can be, our legacy to the global communications infrastructure-exporting the glories of the First Amendment, granting citizens of all nations the experience of speaking without fear. Instead, in their misguided attempt to protect children, Jim Exon and company would export a vision of America based on fear, prudery, ignorance and oppression. I find it indecent.