Patrick Brennan is a mild-mannered computer engineer who has been using the Internet since 1986. On his “home page,” which is accessible to Internet surfers around the globe, you can find a picture of his pet robot, and one of him with his girlfriend, Aischa.
But in defiance of a measure passed by the Senate on Thursday that would sanction people who distribute “indecent” material over computer networks, Brennan is considering slapping some sexually explicit photos onto his cyberspace billboard too.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one considering a little Thoreauian action,” said Brennan, who posted a note to an Internet discussion group urging mass civil disobedience. “I’m not a militant person, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I am an adult, I can make my own choices, and I am ready to fight for my right to download dirty pictures.”
No one owns the Internet, and until now, no one has tried to control it. If the bill passed by the Senate on Thursday becomes law, though, it would become a crime punishable by up to two years in prison even to use common swear words on computer bulletin boards, or to exchange sexually explicit pictures over networks that might be seen by computer users under 18.
But that won’t happen without a fight. Brennan was among the horde of netizens venting outrage on the global computer network, as Internet users traded concerns over how the bill might constrain the way they talk and the information they exchange--and how it might compromise the expansive nature of the fast-growing Internet itself.
The objections of the on-line community have carried little weight in Congress, which passed the anti-smut provision by an overwhelming margin despite about 35,000 e-mail messages opposing it. But free-speech advocates are confident they will get a better hearing in court: Many experts doubt the constitutionality of the measure, which essentially extends the standards that govern broadcast radio and television to on-line services.
Net veterans say the Senate is foolishly attempting to apply old standards of regulation to a new technology that breaks all previous molds. The Internet is the only mass communications medium thus far--with perhaps the exception of ham radio--that has allowed individuals to broadcast their opinions, their creative work, and whatever else they care to share to an audience of millions.
The idea is to protect children from the sexually explicit material that travels the networks, and to strengthen the sanctions for harassment on-line. But with the broad term indecency applied to the material being targeted for restriction, many Net activists say, popular sites such as the Louvre, which has made digitized versions of many of its paintings--including those of naked people--available to net-browsers, could be forced to withdraw from cyberspace.
Similarly, the buzz of hundreds of discussions between people who have never met--perhaps the one phenomenon that has driven the growth of cyberspace more than any other--would be silenced. And many “home pages,” a budding form of personal expression for the on-line world, would be rendered illegal.
“This is an individual, interactive way of communicating, not a single entity like radio or television reaching into your home,” says Dave Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “To say that a broadcasting model should apply shows they don’t know anything about the technology.”
Lascivious talk and digitized pictures of naked people are plentiful on the Internet, where samples of Picasso’s erotic images are one mouse-click away from the “alt.sex.bondage” discussion forum and the “International Codpiece Home Page.”
Indeed, much of the heavy traffic on the Internet on Thursday was accounted for by people downloading samples of pornography from popular sites “before it’s too late.”
But for many net surfers, the issue raised by the Senate bill is larger than what Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), the bill’s sponsor, has broadly labeled “smut.”
“Censorship threatens the rights of all of us,” wrote one poster. “If you don’t like something, don’t look at it.” “I am likewise tired of politicians being praised for trying to limit our First Amendment rights,” replied another. We should stand up for our rights. Let’s flood our Congress with e-mail.”
"[Expletive] the Communications Decency Act. Please prosecute me for this posting,” read a more prosaic observation with the subject heading “Test Case.” Quoth another: " . . . naughty words! . . . naughty words! . . . “
One poster with cyber-tongue in cheek suggested banning children from the Internet altogether:
“I’m tired of government interference with my rights for “the sake of children.” If there is a choice between children on the net or free expression for adults, I’ll take the latter. If they’re going to censor us let them at least come out and say that they want to control the speech of adults. Let’s take the ‘protect the children’ excuse away from them.”
The Voters Telecommunications Watch, a coalition of civil liberties organizations that collected 35,000 electronic signatures over the last month opposing the passage of the bill in a grass-roots cyberspace campaign, sent out a bulletin via e-mail vowing to continue the fight.
“It’s unconstitutional and ineffective, and it’s a very unfortunate way for U.S. policy to go in the regulation of new interactive media,” said Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Under the model adopted by the Senate, the network would be regulated much like broadcasting media, a move which many net veterans say is an attempt to apply old standards of regulation to new technology that breaks all previous molds.
To be sure, some members of the Internet community support the Senate action: “I think that the Senate finally realized it’s time to do something about the Internet and some of the stuff on it and not just wish it away,” wrote one.
But most take comfort in the likelihood that the law would be totally unenforceable. The Internet is an amorphous web of computer networks that spans 150 countries. Half of its users reside outside of the United States.
Because of its international scope, providers of sexually explicit material could easily transport their digitized data to foreign networks. And easily accessible “anonymous re-mailers” can be used to hide the identities of those who choose to participate in sex-related discussions.
“The Internet is so convoluted and unorganized enough that policing it will be next to impossible,” wrote one net veteran. “The pedophiles will still victimize children and distribute the photos and videos they make.”
The vast bulk of information that traverses the network is not sex-related. But enough of it is that it would be virtually impossible for law enforcement officials to track all of it. That leads to questions about selective enforcement.
How a community that has long governed itself--establishing arcane rituals such as “flaming” for those who violated its rules--will handle such enforcement if it comes to pass remains to be seen.
But the passage of the bill may also serve as a lesson in political organizing for the Internet’s disparate 15 million American users. The 35,000 signatures on the petition proved no match for the powerful lobbies of the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council that supported the bill.
Even the commercial on-line services fared better, lobbying successfully to ensure that they would not be held accountable for indecent material that passed through their networks--now, only their subscribers will be liable.
Researcher Jennifer Oldham contributed to this story.
* KEY DIFFERENCES: A comparison of Senate, House telecom reform bills. D1
* BROAD IMPACT: How bill affects cable TV. D1