Digital Activism

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.

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