The Internet has been the least-regulated communications medium. I believe that the medium's phenominal growth in recent time has been due in large part to the absense of regulation. On Thursday both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a telecommunications reform act that, almost as an afterthought, will transform the Net (in the U.S. at least) into the most tightly restricted of media. Words, ideas, and images that can be freely communicated in film, on the printed page, and in broadcast media will subject their originators and carriers to fines up to $250,000 if expressed on an electronic network.
The Supreme Court decision "FCC vs. Pacifica" is the source of the constitutional definition of "indecency." The text of this decision is on the Net. Once the telecomm reform bill takes effect this text will itself be illegal. Anyone found guilty of making it "generally available" on the Internet could go to jail for 2 years. This is because the Supreme Court decision contains many references to the words that made the material in question indecent, as well as a full transcript of the indecent material.
The Exon indecency amendment (named for Sen. James Exon, Democrat of Nebraska) is almost certainly unconstitutional as passed. It would limit discourse on the Internet to a level suitable for seven-year-olds. Once the President signs the telecomm reform bill (which he has said he will do), advocates of free speech are certain to mount court challenges as soon as the law takes effect. The immediate concern is the chilling effect the legislation will have on Internet service providers, who may even now be pulling questionable material from their sites.
One particularly egregious twist in the indecency language was inserted at 2:30 in the morning before the bill passed the House of Representatives. With no chance of public debate, Rep. Henry Hyde (Republican of Illinois), a strong opponent of abortion, pushed through an amendment to the telecomms bill that seems to have the effect of outlawing any online discussion of abortion. The amendment extends a section of the US Code (The Comstock Act) prohibiting certain kinds of "obscene" speech to cover interactive computer services. (Anthony Comstock was a relentless legislator who for 50 years before his death in 1915 acted as the U.S.'s chief censor. He criminalized sending information about contraception and abortion, or anything "obscene," through the mails. He once bragged of having jailed enough people to fill a passenger train of 60 cars. Reps. Exon and Hyde make him look like a piker: once their work becomes law they will have criminalized at a stroke, guessing conservatively, tens of thousands of American citizens and corporations.)
Legislators on the other side of the abortion debate, including Pat Schroeder (D-CO) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), raised an objection to the Hyde language. Reps. Hyde and Lowey took the floor in a scripted exchange (called a "colloquy") in which Rep. Hyde said he didn't intend the language to ban discussion of abortion on the Internet, and Rep. Lowey said, thanks, I understand. The colloquy lays down a legislative history that courts can use later for insight into the intent of Congress at the time legislation is passed. It satisfied all but the staunchest critics of the bill, such as Rep. Shroeder, who said in a later statement:
> "Under the false guise of criminalizing obscenity, the bill as it
> is now written includes the most egregious gag rule about abortion-
> related speech Congress has ever seen. If it wasn't the intent of
> the author to criminalize Internet speech about abortion, and if
> not one Member of Congress understood that the bill covers Inter-
> net speech about abortion, then why won't the conferees take the
> abortion part out? To me, it isn't satisfactory to be told that
> it is probably unconstitutional, so it won't matter. This bill is
> about Telecommunications, not abortion. Congress should take this
> unconstitutional, obsolete language out of this bill and out of
> the computer age."
Among the protests springing up in advance of the signing of the Telecommunications Reform Act, you may see Web sites sporting a blue ribbon and others (or the same ones) with white type on a black background. The Electronic Freedom Foundation is urging the owners of Web pages to add a blue-ribbon graphic, reminiscent of the AIDS ribbon; see <http://www.eff.org/blueribbon.html>. The Voters Telecommunications Watch organization is asking page owners to turn their pages black for 48 hours after President Clinton signs the bill -- see <http://www.vtw.org/speech/>. (The TBTF archive will sport both protests.)
Two networks that supply universities and other institutions in Germany joined Deutsche Telekom, which runs T-Online, in blocking access to the California ISP Webcom and its 1500 customers' Web sites. One of Webcom's customers (in Toronto) distributes neo-Nazi material that is illegal in Germany. The university networks are DFN, which operates Wissenschaftsnetz (WiN), and BelWue, which is financed by the Ministry of Culture in Baden-Wuerttemberg and operates a network connecting universities in southwestern Germany.
As of early Saturday morning German time, both of the university networks had lifted the ban on Webcom. Ulf Moeller <in5y113 at public dot uni-hamburg dot de> wrote to the fight-censorship+ mailing list on Saturday afternoon, reporting a BelWue official's explanation of the decision to lift the ban. One factor that did not enter into the decision was the numerous "mirror" sites that U.S. free-speech advocates had established to highlight the futility of such an attempted blockage. Moeller writes:
> In a personal annotation, [the official] claims that the mirror
> sites had not been relevant for the decision, and calls them an
> "interference with internal affairs" of Germany (which I find
> especially astonishing since those were the exact words of the
> standard East German reaction when confronted with human rights
As noted in TBTF for 1-31-96, the German affair has had a polarizing effect on the free-speech community. Rich Graves <llurch at networking dot stanford dot edu> has the last word. He wrote to the colleague who instigated the mirror sites:
> There's a lot of icebergs out there. Why do you insist on ramming them
> all? I'd rather just route around them.
Recent issues of TBTF have covered items of disturbing import to admirers of the Net culture on which the foundations of Net commerce are being laid. Other observers too are commenting on the convergence of a number of worrisome trends worldwide. For example, here's Carl M. Kadie <kadie at eff dot org>:
> We are seeing the construction of a new "Great Wall of China" and a
> new "Berlin Wall." Like the original Great Wall of China, the new wall
> in China will not stop the "barbarians." Like the orginal Berlin Wall,
> the builders of the new German wall say it provides protection from
> outsiders, but it is really the wall of a prison.
Tim May <tcmay at got dot net>, one of the original Cypherpunks, on Saturday posted to the Cypherpunks list a comprehensive summary of the ill winds now whistling around the Internet, and titled it "Imminent Death of Usenet Predicted." Tim sees rays of hope amid the gloom. Charles Platt <cp at panix dot com> added some useful observations when May's article appeared on the fight-censorship+ list. I've put both articles on the TBTF archive by permission.