Cyberdummies

New bill to outlaw "indecency" on the Internet makes no sense

Censorship in cyberspaaaaace! (Why is it that computer issues lend themselves to horror comic book headlines? "Tiny Mummies in Cyberland!")

Aside from fear of technology (one of the most sensible phobias of our time--did anyone ever ask a fly if it needed eyes on its wings?), I think we're stuck with the wrong metaphor.

One more story about access problems and potholes on the information highway and we're all going to overdose.

During the weekend, Heather Florence of the Association of American Publishers told that august body that computers are more like teen-age sex than anything else. Everybody talks about them all the time without knowing much. Everybody thinks that everybody else is further along than they are. Nobody does it very much or very well. But they will get better.

The captains of the publishing industry were suitably grateful for this insight. The trouble with this dandy new communications technology is that while it enables people to communicate like whizzes, it doesn't give them anything more interesting to say. Like most human conversation, it will eventually revolve primarily around the weather and football. A lot of folks out there surfing the Net don't have the sense God gave gravel, and they aren't any more interesting to hear from than they ever were.

When the Internet was started in 1969, it was a military tool designed to help control nuclear attacks. If a particular site was bombed, it had to continue to operate from other sites, so multiple entry points were critical to the system.

As Tommi Chen points out in a brief history in Business Times, the next phase of the Internet's development was when the academic and research communities jumped on it, and again, the Internet's openness was their key criterion. It ensured that the Internet was easy to connect to and promoted the free exchange of information.

Until about 1990, the Internet was designed for adults only, which is ironic when you hear how many people now swear that kids born after 1969 have some gene that the rest of us are missing that enables them to play the computer like Van Cliburn.

Then came the bulletin-board community, with groups popping up like mushrooms to share their passion for tropical fish or whatever. And now the Net is being commercialized, always a sorry spectacle, as greed-heads sit around figuring out how to cash in on the phenomenon.

Quite naturally, the purveyors of porn have leaped right on it, and as if that weren't depressing enough, the United States Congress, which has the collective computer literacy you might expect of a bunch of 55-year-old oral-fixated extroverts, now proposes to fix this for us.

Senator James Exon, D-Neb., hopped up with a bill to outlaw "indecency" on the Internet, and our fearless leaders, seeing an issue with all the promise of the flag, motherhood, and apple pie, hopped right after him. The bill has now been passed out of committee and will shortly be loose on the floor.

Any possible chance it had of being enforced was lost when Exon wisely backed down on his plan to make commercial service providers, such as America OnLine, responsible every time some 14-year-old decides to write dirty words on the collective bathroom wall.

That, of course, would leave the law trying to police individual users, and good luck in that endeavor, there now being an estimated 30 million users worldwide.

Because you have to go looking for sex on the Internet--it doesn't just pop up while you're trying to reach fellow members of the Heidegger discussion group or people who adore Liszt's sonatas--the more sensible route is to use the blocking mechanisms already available on home and school computers used by children.

Exon's bill contains language more restrictive than current court porn decisions, and that certainly has no application to users in Singapore or Sweden. Exon's bill would limit all adult users to material suitable for children, if it could be enforced, which it can't be.

Now the question is: do our elected representatives have the courage to admit that they don't know what they're doing? Are they willing to cast a vote that can--and inevitably will be--portrayed by the Christian right during the next election as "in favor of on-line pornography?" And will the rest of us be smart enough to figure out that the Christian right is once more pushing a red herring?

Because one of the constants of American political life is that our leaders underestimate our intelligence--instead of exercising their own intelligence by explaining how things really are to the underinformed--we are all caught in a vicious cycle of political debates getting dumb and dumber.

So here's a dandy test for your own new members of Congress, or even your old ones: are they willing to vote for something that every computer-literate person considers truly dumb, or do they have so little faith in your intelligence that they hope to counterfeit this as a "motherhood vote" in the next election?

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

 
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