This article originally appeared in Pyramid #15
Today's Word: Censorship
What an ugly word. What a dangerous word. But also an overused word. First off, a little civics lesson: Only governments can censor. When a big company pulls their ads from a controversial TV show, that is not censorship. It's their money; they are fully within their rights to spend it in any way they choose. Those who are angry at the decision may call it "censorship" in order to gain sympathy for their point of view, but that's not what it is. You may not agree with it, whatever it is, but it isn't censorship.
Neither, as one letter writer tried to claim, is the act of putting a warning label about adult language on a magazine an act of censorship. I won't repeat the whole discussion here Ð check out "We're Reading Your Mail" if you care Ð but the warning label was our idea. Nobody made us do it.
Only governments can censor. (OK, perhaps what some de facto governments Ð like the parents of underage children Ð do can also be called "censorship," but that's another discussion for another time.) And when it comes to censorship, the United States government has done a reasonably good job of steering clear of it. The First Amendment to the Constitution is pretty clear, after all.
But not so clear, at least in the minds of some, when it comes to computers and cyberspace. A bill passed the Senate last night (as I write this) calling for strong penalties (two years' jail time and $100,000 fine) for the creation and distribution of "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent" material on computer networks. It passed 84-16.
Of course, it will still have to get past the House Ð currently dominated by Newt "Third Wave" Gingrich, who claims to be a firm believer in the Internet as a key to the country's future Ð and a Democratic president who (I hope) has a little more sensitivity to civil liberties. And then there's the inevitable court challenges. I don't think we have much to worry about anytime soon.
But, still. 84-16. Those weren't all Gingrich/Dole/Limbaugh Republicans voting for the amendment. The amendment's author, Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.), has spent quite a bit of time campaigning for this measure on TV and elsewhere. I don't have the exact quote, but his point was that he was absolutely certain that when the Founding Fathers penned the First Amendment in 1791, that they didn't have pornography in mind. Mike Godwin of the Electronic Freedom Foundation has a completely opposite take on things (again, I'm paraphrasing): The First Amendment was designed solely with "offensive" speech in mind, because no one ever tries to ban the other kind.
My own response to Sen. Exon's assertion is: Speech is speech. Ideas are ideas. Words are words. The idea that computer communication isn't covered by the First Amendment because there were no computers in 1791 or that pornography isn't covered because there were no porno mags at the time is, well . . . let me put it this way: There were no AK-47s or Uzis or fertilizer bombs in 1791, either, and most anti-gun control types firmly believe that the Second Amendment applies to them, anyway. Arms are arms. Guns are guns. It's hard to disagree with that particular argument. (There are plenty of other perfectly good arguments against the proliferation of guns in our society that can be made, anyway. But that's another column for another time.)
Ultimately, we have the theme that science-fiction (and most notably, cyberpunk) writers and game designers have been wrestling with for years: What happens when the technology advances more rapidly than society's capability to deal with the changes? Too many lawmakers, too many bureaucrats, too many law-enforcement officers don't even have the first clue as to what's going on out there on the cutting edge of information technology, much less how to regulate it and police it.
And don't get me confused with some "information must be free" cyberspace libertarian Ð cyberspace, like every other place populated by humans, needs policing. Like every other place where humans are, there are the unscrupulous, the mean and the just plain sick preying on the naive, the weak and the young. I just don't think Exon's measure is the answer.
The Internet is no longer the playground of the precocious, the private haven of those technologically savvy enough to get in and navigate their way through the arcane coding, system incompatibilities and shoddy documentation. The Internet, for better or worse, belongs to everybody now Ð or it will very, very soon. We'd better get used to it.
By the time you read this, Exon's amendment could be dead. Or it might not. I suggest you take a moment to find out what's going on and weigh in with an opinion. Because the real world is knocking on the Internet's door, and soon that knock will grow to an incessant pounding, and shortly after that they'll be coming in whether we open the door for them or not.
- Scott Haring
P.S. It wouldn't hurt to plug our own cyberspace home here. Come visit Steve Jackson Games on the World Wide Web at http://www.sjgames.com/.
Article publication date: October 1, 1995
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