Freest No More?

by J. Javid
New York

So which one is it going to be? My guess is that the Communications Decency Act recently enacted in the U.S. will die first. If it isn't killed in U.S. courts, it will be shredded on the Internet.

Part of a telecommunications legislation, the CDA imposes $250,000 fines and prison terms for anyone who posts "indecent" material, including the text of classic works of fiction and artwork containing images of nudes in the Internet.

The authors of the CDA, led by Senator Exon and his religious extremist friends, say they want to protect children from the harmful effects of foul language and images. I wonder.

ïAren't the politicians really preying on people's fears of where the new and fast-moving information superhighway is taking them? With the existence of numerous softwares which can protect minors from pornographic sites, is there a need for such harsh legal measures?

America is a strange place. When you come here from a politically under-developed country, you can get quite a shock from seeing politicians nurtured in a free society working so hard to take away freedoms.

And the American politicians who are willing to curb freedoms are not a small minority. Look at the numbers who voted for the CDA. Members of the House of Representatives passed it by a vote of 414-16. In the Senate, the vote was 91-5.

Granted. The CDA is only part of a larger legislation to deregulate the telecommunications industry. But the limitations put on the most important means of communication since the development of speech itself are so severe that one wonders why only a handful of members of Congress tried to block them.

I would not be surprised if I came across a study estimating there is more Internet speech than verbal speech around the world. The Internet gives the individual the power of unlimited expression on a global scale. In terms of opportunities for freedom of expression, no other medium even comes close.

That is why several U.S. civil rights groups have challenged the CDA. They have convinced a federal court to put a temporary block on the CDA's implementation until the issues are debated, probably in the Supreme Court, where nine judges will decide if the law is in fact against the First Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.

Historically, Supreme Court judges, more often than not, have shown much more interest in preserving freedoms than politicians. That isn't good news for politicians. But worse is this simple fact: Even if the the law survives the judicial ax, it will sooner rather than later die in the Internet.

The Internet is already being used by some 30 million people. And the number is growing at a phenomenal rate. There is no way to monitor what all these people put online. And with all the technological loopholes, there is no way to effectively limit controversial content.

This isn't to say that laws like the CDA are not going to surface again or that governments cannot intimidate Internet users. They will and they can. And that is why the U.S. Congress has set an ominous precedent. It has told the world that the most democratic country has no problem with trying to put a lid on free expression. The undemocratic governments are very happy indeed.

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Last Updated: 11-Mar-96
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