Digital Activism

Fighting for free speech on the Net

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SCREW, PENIS, DICK, GETTING OFF, VAGINA, CUNT, CUM, FEEL UP, GIVE HEAD, MAKE LOVE, CONDOM -- these are words adults and youth alike are encouraged to say aloud by the online educational book AIDS-PROOFING YOUR KIDS. The same words could send both parties to jail if Senator James Exon's (D-NE) Communications Decency Act, a censorship amendment to the sweeping Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1995, were to become law. Under the CDA, which passed the Senate in June, everything from hard-core porn to vitriolic email, from AIDS-education Web sites to usenet group discussions about sexual abuse, could be deemed 'obscene.'

Although Internauts lost the first battle, the censorship war is far from over. Marshaling an array of online resources that include list serves, Web sites, email, and newsgroups, free speech advocates are organizing against legislative measures to control the future of the Net. Led by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democratic Technology, and the Society for Electronic Access, digital activists circulated rapid-fire warnings about the Exon measure and collected 65,000 virtual signatures on an electronically-distributed petition that CDA opponent Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) held up during the Sen ate debate.

If signed into law, the DECENCY ACT will criminalize a wide range of online conduct and impose fines and jail terms for individuals (but not commercial services or providers) who transmit or download 'indecent' material over computer networks accessible to anyone under the age of 18. 'Annoying' practices such as making someone's phone ring an excessive number of times or using one of the Seven Naughty Words in a nasty email to your Representative were also targeted as criminal behavior.

Most advocacy groups are supporting the 'Child Protection, User Empowerment, and Free Expression in Interactive Media Study Act, S.714' as a more tolerable alternative to the House version of the Decency Act. Another solution often mentioned by CDA opponents is relatively inexpensive filtering software. Surf Watch allows parents and employers to screen newsgroups 'likely to contain explicit material' and restrict access to specified Web, FTP, Gopher and chat sites. But the question remains whether censoring software can really be a panacea to censorship.

Original to Utne Reader Online, July 1995.