Fear, Paranoia and the First Amendment

David Moisan, dmoisan@shore.net, of Salem, Massachusetts, USA

Lots of people, in cyberspace and outside it, have stated their belief that the Communications Decency Act is a bad thing, a thought-stifler, a creativity-muzzler, an idea-suppressor. It's all of these things. But there's an emotional dimension that's much worse.

Many of you have seen the bumper stickers by gun-rights advocates, "My wife, sure, my dog, maybe, my gun, NEVER!" or "I'll give up my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers". They're strong statements of personal freedoms, for sure.

But what's happened to these advocates? In their cause, paranoia and fear have run wild. When people speak of using their guns against some politician, of arming themselves against a government they don't like, of defending what they call the real America, that scares me.

What has this to do with the CDA? No one who's against the CDA is violent as far as I know, and I'm not suggesting that they are, yet I am finding these same strong emotions, fear and paranoia, in myself and others in the wake of February 8th, 1996 and the signing of the Act, and I don't like it one bit.

I bitterly resent a government that would make me their enemy because of something I said. I don't want to live under siege like a survivalist, reacting violently to any approach by The Enemy. I don't want to have to write just for the sake of the First Amendment, because I believe there are better reasons to write than that. I'm not putting shrill phrases into my signature ("From my cold dead fingers...my computer") if I can help it.

But nor do I want to live a furtive life, making little lists of what I can and cannot say and hoping no one notices. I don't want to see my world become smaller and smaller as the restrictions become more and more broadly interpreted. Even if I only read "safe" topics or post them on my web pages, I'm not comfortable at all, knowing that my content, or that of my friends and associates could be suddenly restricted.

I'm afraid, paranoid–and bitter, over being afraid and paranoid. In the freest country in the world, it shouldn't come to this.

We need to remember Franklyn Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. Remember the most important freedom: Freedom from Fear. Or, as I would paraphrase it, Freedom from Paranoia. Freedom from having to regard my government, my editor, my fellow users or my service provider as the Enemy. Freedom to get a rejection slip or a bad review or a "Dear Applicant" letter via the net, rather than an indictment and police at my door.

It's that freedom that the CDA has taken from me and all of us. We have every right to be angry. But we mustn't be bitter or paranoid or afraid: We still live in the freest country in the world and, with all our effort, we will be free of this small-minded threat.

David Moisan
February 22nd, 1996

Postscript: Paranoia Revisited:

The Communications Decency Act is history, as you may know, having been declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1997. But why aren't I happy? Because in some ways, things are even worse. As a reaction to the CDA, we now have "voluntary" site-blocking software, such as CyberPatrol, that not only blocks the obvious, "bad" pornography sites, but political sites such as the League of Women Voters, among others.

My site is not blocked. Yet. But another section of my site discusses disabilities; what if I discussed sexuality among people with disabilities or worse yet, gay people with disabilities? (And why not? The sexual orientation of people with disabilities is as varied as in any other population.) Am I now supposed to make my "little list" of topics I will never discuss for fear of being on CyberPatrol's NOTList? Especially since many parents use my page, and may not have disabled the blocking software for their own browsing.

And there's more: Now the prevailing belief is that all web authors should rate their web pages with the standards of organizations such as RSACi. Prompted by concerned parents, there is a move to block search engines from returning "unrated" pages in their search results. While RSACi is so far voluntarily self-rated, some web hosts are considering making ratings mandatory in their usage agreements, and that if the individual website author doesn't self-rate, a rating will be assigned to them by the web host.

The great majority of websites on the Net are still unrated. including my own site. A great many informational sites are unrated, notably MSNBC, which recently removed its RSACi endorsement after running violent news stories that are not similarly rated on TV. Some prosaic sites are also unrated, like National Semiconductor, a site that is often referenced by electronic engineers seeking technical data. W3C, the consortium that sets the standards for the HTML in this page, hasn't rated its web site, either.

A search engine that would block "unrated" sites would return very few hits. But why not rate in the first place? Let's consider what could happen. Let's say I go to RSACi and go through the long questionnaire to determine which of my pages have sex, violence and provocative politics and rate them accordingly. Good, right?

What if, one fine day, an Internet user sees one of my pages and is offended for some reason; perhaps there's some politics she doesn't like, or doesn't agree with. She sends mail, not to me, but to my host. My webmaster sends me an email: "Your rating's too light. We have revised your pages to the rating on our server. If you try to change these ratings, your web site will be removed per policy." When movies are rated, for example, they're usually rated forever, and no retroactive re-rating is attempted. But with the fluid world of the Web, this will not be the case!

(While it does sound paranoid that someone would go after me in this way, people new to the Net often think they can deal with opinions they don't like by going after "the boss", someone's webmaster, network administrator or ISP, to "remove it.")

An analogy here: If this rating system were to be applied to ordinary publishing, you could find yourself in a bookstore or library browsing through a book when the clerk rips it out of your hands and says, "Sorry, this book is being re-rated. I don't know if I can let you have it back." Or imagine you're an author and a big, private publishing organization tells you you can't even try to sell your work without a rating, or if it's published, even see it in Books In Print.

People would scream about censorship, of course, as they should. But why should cyberspace be any different? If you've seen my other work on this site, like the Invisible Disability FAQ, you probably find me to be serious about what I write (Judging from the positive feedback I've gotten, this is likely the case.)

And if I can write above the din of "MAKE MONEY FAST", "SEXXXXY GIRLS NOW!" and other spam, then others have, too. The many links I have on my site attest to this. The many eloquent letters I've gotten from people with disabilities about pain, sadness and frustration with the system attest to this. This medium, though full of sound and fury like nothing else in the world, is a legitimate means of expression and as such is deserving of the same First Amendment rights we have in other media. We deserve no less.

Two years after the CDA, is there still paranoia, is there still fear? You bet. What do we do?

Speak out. Loudly. The next time some politician or "family values advocate" tries to tell you that the Internet is "different" and needs to be "regulated for the children.", set them straight. The next time you make "a little list" of "safe" topics to put on your web site, ask yourself why, and keep asking it again. Instead of clamoring for "simple" solutions to your children's web browsing, take the time to browse with them and talk about the sites they like and tell them about the sites you don't like and why. Be your own filter.

Don't give in to fear. Don't give in to paranoia. And especially, don't give in to simple technological answers. There aren't any. The CDA is history but we will have to fight its principles for a long time to come.

David Moisan
February 9th, 1998

March 1999

Congress has tried it again! COPPA, The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, has been signed into law. As I write this, a judge has issued an injunction against it, but that may well be lifted. Did we really think we could stop fighting?

Free Speech Resources

Here are some links to free speech advocates and similar resources.

24 Hours of Democracy
Eight years ago, 24 Hours of Democracy started the campaign that put me and my essay on the web for the first time. The campaign is over, but the site is still up for historical purpose.
Electronic Freedom Foundation
The seminal organization for freedom on the Net.
Teenagers' anti-censorship page; great stuff here!
"The Net Labeling Delusion: Saviour or Devil"
An Australian critique of the PICS rating system.
The Censorware Project
A blog covering censorship software since 1997.
Recreational Software Advisory Council, so far the only rating organization on the Net.
Electronic Privacy Information Center
A good starting point for privacy issues on the net.

24 Hours of Democracy
Dave Moisan's Home Page

David Moisan
Copyright © 1996, 1999, 2003, David Moisan
Last updated on May 10th, 2003
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