FIRST THINGS FIRST: I THINK PEOPLE WHO PREY ON children for their sexual kicks deserve the harshest punishments our legal and social systems allow. I do not want anyone giving pornographic material to my children, whether it is printed, filmed, videotaped, or beamed by infrared links or radio waves to a personal computer, a television, or a videotelephone.
That said, the Communications Decency Act, part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 signed by President Clinton earlier this year, is an ill-conceived, unneeded, damaging, and dangerous piece of legislation that was created by people who are as ignorant about technology as they are savvy about politics.
I’m willing to concede that many congressional supporters of the so-called decency legislation acted in good faith, with a sincere desire to protect children from wired weirdos. But the law Congress just made is more harmful to our children than anything they are likely to encounter on the Internet. It is dangerous for grown-ups too.
It is also stupid, because it assumes that Congress can regulate an international computer network that is 99 percent private and that is composed of users who are more than 50 percent non-American. Additionally, it is silly because it assumes it can outsmart my two teenagers technologically, and it is offensive because it assumes that the Government can provide a better moral compass for my kids than my wife and I are already providing. It discounts the effectiveness of such user-controlled programs as Surf Watch, which is so thorough that it even blocks the White House’s World Wide Web site (because it contains the word couples). It also
Congress, sensing it may be on shaky legal ground when it passed the Communications Decency Act, made a special provision in the law for “fast track” judicial review all the way to the Supreme Court.
Whether or not the law is struck down, the forces that sought to “curb the spread of obscenity and indecency, speech that is not protected by the first amendment, from the Internet in order to protect our children” will not rest, not as long as the Internet continues to expand and grow in importance.
(The quoted words were entered into the Congressional Record by Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, who, only seconds later, slipped in a passage in the Telecommunications Act that just happens to criminalize the mere discussion, over computer networks, of certain aspects of abortion.)
But the new law is bad. Here’s why the Communications Decency Act and its inevitable successors represent a threat to anyone who uses online systems, whether they work in a home office or simply use the Net to do home banking.
* To comply with the new law, both Internet and online service providers will be compelled to track, and most likely divulge, our electronic footsteps and fingerprints to a far greater degree than ever before.
* The best way that online and Internet access providers can protect themselves from criminal prosecution under the new law is to do everything possible to make sure their customers are identifiable.
This means that online service providers must ask for a credit card from people when they are registering for service and then keep track of what those people do when they are online. It means keeping records about a person’s e-mail. Such information will make telephone pin registry records (the kind that detectives get from the phone companies) seem as crude as cave paintings.
Far-fetched? America Online and the other services give law enforcement officials access to private e-mail files, as long as the government provides valid search warrants, which are becoming increasingly common in cyberspace.
It is not a new idea. Long before the Internet was invented, President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered some advice for those who, a generation later, think decency can be regulated.
“Don’t join the burners,” President Eisenhower said in 1953. “Don’t be afraid to go to your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend your own ideas of decency; that should be your only censorship.”
The first amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
To quote a favorite Internet e-mail signature line, “Hey Congress: What part of ‘make no law’ don’t you understand?”