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The Hidden Dangers of Indecency Police

By Howard Rheingold

If you don't dress properly in Teheran you can land in big trouble. They have neighborhood committees in Cuba that make sure nobody's communications are politically incorrect. Now Senator James Exon (D-Neb) is trying to bring decency police to the United States of America in the form of S 314, the "Communications Decency Act." He seems to be succeeding.

Despite an Internet-organized petition that delivered more than 100,000 electronic signatures to Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-SD), the Committee has included S 314 in the Senate's telecommunications reform package. It's on its way to becoming the law of the land.

The bill is badly flawed, and very dangerous. They should have called it the "Censorship Act."

The wording of the original bill would have killed an emerging American industry dead in its tracks by holding private commercial e-mail service providers such as CompuServe and America Online liable for the words their customers use in their messages. That language has been dropped, but very dangerous language remains. The key problem lies in defining what is meant by "decency," and in giving the State the power to define it.

Once we give the government the right to decide what consenting adults are allowed say to one another, then we are on a slippery slope. Here at the top of the slope, almost everyone will agree that certain kinds of words and images are, indeed, indecent. However, it is entirely conceivable that such a law could be used tomorrow or ten years from now to levy $100,000 fines and 2 year jail sentences on those whose communications are not politically correct. Today it's pornography. Tomorrow, it might be teaching evolution, or sex education, or criticising the government.

Free speech is often unpleasant, but the alternative is controlled speech, the hallmark of tyranny. Our other liberties rest upon the foundation of free speech. We don't need a new law that fails to protect citizens from shocking material, but does give the State more power to regulate how we communicate.

S 314 will not stop pornography online because today's technology makes it possible to encode pornographic images inside the data used to transmit innocent looking images. And it is unenforceable unless we want to send decency troops to a dozen different countries. The proposed law will make you liable if someone doesn't like the language you used in an e-mail argument. Under S. 314, you can walk to the corner store and buy a skin magazine, but when you download a scanned image from the pages of the same magazine, you can face jail time.

We all should teach our children to have good sense about the information they allow into their minds, and communications vendors should give parents tools for restricting their children's access to material the parent finds unacceptable. The home is the proper focus of responsibility for protecting kids from indecency. Don't let the State take that responsibility and that liberty away.

Online updates regarding S 314 are available on the Internet by fingering or via the Web. It looks like e-mail doesn't impress Congress. We need to take to snailmail. When they get 100,000 letters and postcards opposing a weapon of tyranny in the guise of a tool for decency, perhaps our Senators will hear us.

Send a card or letter, phone call or fax, to Senator Pressler (202-224-5842 phone, 202-224-1259 fax, 243 RSOB, Washington, D.C., 20510), and to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who opposes the bill (202-224-4242 phone, 202-224-3595 fax, address 433 RSOB, Washington D.C., 20510).

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold