(Originally Posted: 06/29/97)
I would suggest that, unless you are well-versed in the communications Decency Act and its implications, you should orient yourself with the Act and what has led to this court decision by going to either the Citizen Internet Empowerment Coalition or the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was unconstitutional. The pundits and wags have had a field day spilling gallons of ink lauding the Court and proclaiming this a victory for First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. They revel in the thought that their “freedom” has been given to them by the court. In fact, the Supreme Court has given to the people of the United States a responsibility to choose what to view. By throwing out the CDA, everyone within the United States (that is, both those who have access to computers and those who may access computers at one time or another) have been put in the position of having to make real, hard decisions that affect ourselves and one another. Yet the pundits do not recognize this; how typical of them.
Beyond this superficial understanding of the Court’s decision is something that is far deeper, yet must be understood with clarity. The Supreme Court noted very clearly something I have longed believed. The Internet is a new technology, a new medium. It is not like anything seen or heard before. As I note elsewhere on this site:
” … It is [a new medium] because it’s an uncharted frontier the likes of which no human has ever seen before, precisely because it cannot be ‘seen, felt, heard, or touched.’ It is an intellectual frontier, thus it is the most challenging and the most difficult to understand because there is nothing that it can be related to. It is not like television; it is not like radio. It is itself, something new.”
Put another way, the Internet is an extension of one’s mind. Television and radio are both programmed in that decisions are made for the viewer and listener as to what will be shown and what songs will be played. With the Internet, it is completely the reverse. It is the user and searches for what they want to view or read, based entirely upon a thought they had. An example of this is the following: a person is trying to fix a leaky faucet. Certainly they could call a plumber, but they could also go to Learn2.com where they could search for ways to fix faucets. The user could also go to Home Depot to find the latest prices on a new faucet. In each case, though, the user has thought of something and wants to find out more on the subject.
Thus, it is the same way with sexually explicit material on the Web. The person using the computer must want to find such material. As Justice Stevens wrote in the majority opinion:
“Though such material is widely available, users seldom encounter such content accidentally. ‘A document’s title or a description of the document will usually appear before the document itself . . . and in many cases the user will receive detailed information about a site’s content before he or she need take the step to access the document. Almost all sexually explicit images are preceded by warnings as to the content.’ For that reason, the ‘odds are slim’ that a user would enter a sexually explicit site by accident. Unlike communications received by radio or television, ‘the receipt of information on the Internet requires a series of affirmative steps more deliberate and directed than merely turning a dial. A child requires some sophistication and some ability to read to retrieve material and thereby to use the Internet unattended.'”
Isn’t it interesting that this distinction has long been recognized, yet we continue to try to 1) control the Internet, and 2) equate the Internet to something that is already in place?
I would argue that we (by this, I am referring collectively to society) continually do this because we refuse to think. We refuse to recognize this medium is something that is uniquely driven by individuals and that it is something completely new and different from anything we have ever encountered before, not just as a society but throughout the history of man.
Indeed, our history shows that individuals have expressed themselves, each in their own way, each with the newest medium available to them. For this period in time, the Internet is the new medium of expression. Why, then, do certain individuals feel such a compelling need to regulate or control the medium? Is it because it is new? Is it because they don’t understand it? Is it because of fear, fear of the unknown, fear of something new, fear of not being in control? If these are any of the reasons for regulation or control, it displays an intellectual shallowness that can only be driven by egotism.
The District Court in Philadelphia found, “… The content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” That being the case, why would you want to regulate it unless we are willing to say that we want to legally discriminate against individuals. If the American citizenry is willing to discriminate through law against certain types of thought, then the United States has sunk to a very low level as a society. In fact, it is the case where we have institutionalized discrimination regarding certain aspects of our society. At least, however, we have not begun discriminating based upon thoughts; the CDA came very close to do just that, though.
Many on the Right, especially those within religious spheres, would argue that protection of minors is essential. I would make the rejoinder that, given the foregoing arguments on computers and the Internet being an extension of the mind, the only real protection for minors would be the frank and positive discussion of sexually explicit issues and material with them. Perhaps my friends on the Right should recognize that it is responsibility of parents and/or guardians to educate their child(ren) first, not that of the state. Moreover, it is also the responsibility of parents to guide and instruct their child during their growth and development.
In every case, I have been told by parents and/or guardians “I don’t have the time.” To them I respond unequivocally: If your child is of any importance to you, you will make the time. Both of my parents worked while I was in elementary and high school because they had to. They wanted the best for me and were willing to sacrifice to make me a better person. Yet they found the time to be at home for me and with me to help me grow, develop, and mature. Was it difficult for them, you better believe it. But they also recognized that if they didn’t do this for me, no one else would because no one else could claim to be my parents. If they can do that, why can’t you?
I close with a final quote from the Supreme Court decision:
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. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.