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Censorship in Cyberspace

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Unless some unforeseen attack of good sense has struck Washington, the U.S. Congress by now has criminalized the placement of so-called indecent material on the booming worldwide computer marketplace known as the Internet. That provision, which is part of the mammoth, dubious telecommunications reform bill, could stifle the exciting electronic age by introducing the heavy hand of the government censor.

For the last year, the news media have bombarded us with exaggerated horror stories about the dangers that lurk, particularly for children, in cyberspace. True enough, if you look for it, you can find all manner of material on electronic bulletin boards, Internet discussion groups, and the Worldwide Web, the graphical part of the Internet.

No one should be surprised by this. Throughout history, people have used every new medium, beginning with the cave wall, to indulge their interest in sexual matters. Cyberspace is just the latest example. No doubt when Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century, the bluenoses of the day warned that the newfangled invention would make it easy to publish pornographic stories. And of course, it did. It also made it easy to publish the Bible and all the other great works of civilization. Opponents of pornography should see it as a small price to pay for the Great Books, which, because of the advances in printing technology, soon became accessible to all. So it’s deja vu all over again. Proponents of censorship say the protection of children must come before free speech on the Internet. They make several mistakes. First, the term “indecency” is so vague that it’s a blank check for the government to control the content of electronic expression. As has been said before, the Bible contains many stories that could qualify as indecent. So too some of the greatest secular literature. Early in this century, the works of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and others were subjected to government sanctions under pressure from H.L. Mencken’s bete noires , the New England Watch and Ward Society, and Anthony Comstock’s Society for the Suppression of Vice. The U.S. Post Office could kill a magazine by declaring it indecent and barring it from the mails. Frank exploration of the human condition has always been subject to the charge of indecency.

Moreover, Congress did not simply make it a crime to send indecent messages to minors. (That would be problematic enough.) It was also made a crime to place indecent material where minors could have access to it. That means anywhere on the Internet! Once someone becomes familiar with cyberspace, he can go anywhere and find anything. A sender cannot shield a message posted to a discussion group. Keepers of “adult” Web sites can, and usually do, warn visitors to leave if they are under 18 or offended by nudity. But they cannot prevent a minor from visiting. (Of course, such warnings have precisely the opposite of the presumably intended effect. As long as kids are kids, they’ll be eager to go where they are told not to.)

The upshot is that if the anti-indecency provision is really to be enforced, the government will have to closely police cyberspace and impose ex post facto law, in the sense that we often won’t know whether a text is indecent until the authorities tell us. This is a monstrous situation in a society that prides itself on its freedom.

What is most disturbing of all, perhaps, is that at least some of the right-wing “pro-family” lobby, such as the Family Research Council, supports government suppression of indecency. One would think that proponents of a strong family would not look to government for protection. Paternalism is the kiss of death. It implies that the family cannot sustain itself without the intrusion of the state. We know what comes with protection: strings. Ask government to protect you from indecency and it will find all kinds of things indecent. Once the state has its foot in the door, it’s too late. Why don’t conservatives see that by now?

If the government is going to shield children from sexual images on the Internet, why shouldn’t it also protect them from violent images, as those on the left want? And how about “extremist” political material? All manner of fringe political groups have Web sites neo-Nazis, white supremacists, assorted fascists. Should children be protected from them? Once we extend the principle to political ideas, you can say good-bye to free debate. Would you trust the political correctness folks to decide which ideas are hazardous to your children? I wouldn’t.

The irony of all this is that, as usual, the marketplace is already providing assistance to parents who are reasonably concerned with what their children may encounter in cyberspace. Several software products, such as SurfWatch, allow parents to prohibit access to sites that contain sexually explicit material. The advocates of government suppression say that those products are not perfect. That’s right. New sites are set up every day keeping ahead of the free and unruly cybermarketplace is impossible. Obviously, it is no substitute for a close relationship between parent and child which means parents should learn something about the Internet and spend time online with their kids. But the new software can be helpful.

The promise of government protection is seductive to parents who are too busy to be so involved with their kids. They can say to themselves: “I don’t have time to see what my kids are doing, so it’s a good thing the government is protecting them.” Throughout history, governments have usurped the authority of the family. Unfortunately, it has too often happened with the acquiescence, if not enthusiastic endorsement, of many parents.

At any rate, the protection of children is a ruse. The same people who wish to keep indecency from children also wish to keep it from adults. There is always a self-appointed group of people who claim to know what literature, or pictures, or movies are bad for us and who have no hesitation about using the law to impose their preferences. Since Mencken smashed literary Puritanism, it has been hard to limit what adults read, so the neo-Puritans recast their old crusade as a mission to protect children. In the print age, the state to some extent could keep material from children without interfering with adults. The Internet now makes that impossible. Since there are no physical boundaries in cyberspace, anyone can go anywhere anytime. Copying and forwarding information is nearly costless. The only way to keep “indecent” electronic material from children is to keep it from adults. Or try. There really is no way to fully suppress any material. All government can do is raise the costs of finding it.

There are several lessons to be drawn here. First, the suppressors of vice will seize on any new technology to reinvigorate their crusade. If you respond that older technologies did not lead to widespread corruption of children, they’ll respond that the new technology is entirely different and that we need new rules. Second, because Americans instinctively object to being told what they can read or look at, the vice squads will seek to disarm them by saying that censorship is necessary to protect their children. Decent people who don’t give the matter sufficient thought will thus be hornswoggled.

Third, cyberspace is an extension of the marketplace. It is free and open. It is orderly and unruly at the same time. It is intrinsically libertarian. Vic Sussman of U.S. News & World Report says that if you’re not a libertarian when you first go online, you’ll soon become one. No one controls the Internet or can control it. That makes certain people uncomfortable. If people are that free, they must be up to no good. That’s why we see various proposals for control censorship, government encryption standards, and no doubt more to come.

Advocates of liberty must make clear that an attack on the free and spontaneous electronic revolution is an attack on freedom. It is not just an impediment to hackers and pornographers. It is an assault on us all.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.