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Why Cyberspace Should Not Be Censored

By Howard Rheingold

In a country where possession of formidable personal arsenals is a stoutly-defended right, I am amazed and ashamed that my own Senator, Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), wants to make it a crime to send bomb-making instructions over the Internet -- information that can be obtained in any traditional paper encyclopedia. People who use the Net to commit criminal acts can still be investigated and prosecuted, but we must beware those who would make thoughts and words into crimes.

The reason even abhorrent views and dangerous information are not illegal in the United States is because the founders of the nation knew that democracy is more than the vote. Self-government requires free communication among citizens, and free access to information. This principle has been affirmed time and again. The Supreme Court agreed that even printing an article about making a thermonuclear bomb is Constitutionally protected speech. Any person who uses the Internet to actually bomb people ought to be prosecuted. Just knowing how to do it ought not be be a crime.

Beware those who cloak their snooping and censorship in the guise of decency and public safety; neither decency nor safety can be found in giving the State the power to police our words rather than our deeds.

On May 11, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) called a hearing of the Senate's subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information to consider the matter of "The Availability of Bomb Making Information on the Internet."

The panel of witnesses included Frank Tuerkheimer, who as a US Attorney had successfully prosecuted the Progressive magazine to prevent the publication of H-bomb instructions in the 1970s. Tuerkheimer pointed out that information on making fuel-fertilizer explosives can be found in the latest edition of the Encylopedia Brittanica.

Investigative reporter Brock Meeks, who had been present at the hearing, reported in his electronically-distributed CyberWire Dispatch that Feinstein said, "You really have my dander up. This is not what this country is about."

Meeks noted: "That remark drew a sharp response from Jerry Berman, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology: "Excuse me, Senator, but that is what this nation is all about."

I called Berman's office, where CDT deputy director Janlori Goldman told me that Feinstein has vowed to attach a "censorship of dangerous information on the Internet" amendment to any anti-terrorism legislation. A call to Senator Feinstein's office got a confirmation that these are indeed the Senator's intentions, but not an official statement.

Before we allow the government to set up a technology thought police to weigh each communication and every item in every online library for whatever the current political administration considers "dangerous," we ought to consider alternatives that do not threaten our fundamental liberties. If we gave every parent and teacher tools to determine which information their children and students could obtain via the Internet, perhaps we would not need to authorize decency police. Next week, I'll talk about a new tool that can lock out offensive material from your household without infringing the liberty of other citizens.

I was tipped off to this outrage by CyberWire Dispatch. To subscribe, send e-mail to, with the message "subscribe CWD-L." Another good Websites for action alerts about attacks on civil liberties is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Let the Terrorism and Tyranny subcommittee know you still believe in the Bill of Rights, pick up the telephone, send paper mail or fax:

Senator Dianne Feinstein
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: (202) 224-3841
Fax: (202) 228-3954

Senator Arlen Specter
530 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: (202) 224-4254
Fax: (202) 224-1893

Senator Herbert H. Kohl
330 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: (202) 224-5653

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold