August 5, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—In recent months the Internet has turned into a kind of free-speech weapon. Every taboo erected by governments or institutions has been shattered, often by volunteers scattered about the world with no direct stake in the controversy—only a striving for the liberation of information. But the cocky thumb-nosing that accompanies these tactics may well lead to a backlash all of us will rue.

The earliest examples I know of where the Internet was used to “route around” information restrictions come from opponents of the Church of Scientology. Hoping to embarrass the organization, and to reduce the revenues it derives by charging thousands of dollars for access to secret documents, opponents broadcast them through electronic mail and newsgroups. The church struck back with injunctions and lawsuits.

Commerce followed religion. The next milestone in information warfare came in early 1995, when a scientist discovered a small floating-point error in the Intel Pentium chip. While traditional media would have limited his complaint to a letter in an obscure journal and griping among colleagues, Internet newsgroups provided him access to a large percentage of Intel’s customer base. Once a program producing the result “1=2” hit the newsgroups, momentum could not be held back and Intel had to agree to replace the chip for anyone who asked.

Mirroring (the practice of copying all files from one system to another) has been used to combat the shut-down of sites offered by Holocaust revisionists. Like a Hydra monster, the suppression of one site leads to half a dozen others. While most people helping the revisionists express revulsion at their neo-Nazi ideas, they proclaim that no one is safe to express himself unless everyone is. Several people have even suggested cooperative ventures like an “Eternity Service” that would publish a file to so many locations that removing all copies would become practically impossible.

The newest trend in Internet protests is the mirroring of Web sites that are being threatened. Anybody with a Web server can do it: just choose “Save” from the “File” menu of your browser, store the Web page’s HTML file on your system, and link to it from your home page. Well-publicized cases have challenged government actions in:

Reports of these events, at first, generate a kind of exhilaration. Not only do they reinforce critical principles in freedom of public discourse, but they give us the same pleasure as seeing Groucho Marx insult Margaret Dumont.

But beware: spectacular incidents spawn heavy-handed responses. If the public gets a notion that a medium is a hotbed of subversion, it is less likely to defend it from urgent attacks. Most of us remember the assault on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting when the Republicans captured the U.S. Congress in 1994. In the hearings that were broadcast (by the CPB, ironically enough) anyone who had ever felt slighted or misrepresented by a public-broadcasting show for the past 30 years came and wreaked their revenge. Similarly, foes of freedom of expression have successfully publicized a handful of provocative exhibitions and performances to discredit the National Endowment for the Arts. Now even Disney isn’t safe!

A similar backlash is brewing against the Internet. Outside North America, the public is even less tolerant of in-your-face challenges than we are. The person who erected posters comparing Mohammed to a pig in the West Bank city of Hebron caused widespread rioting, as have Northern Irish Protestants marching through Catholic neighborhoods.

While professing their ardent desire to spread the Internet, the European Parliament has issued a statement against “illegal harmful and content.” A larger group of countries, including the U.S. and Japan, met in Berlin in early July, again discussing harmful content on the Internet.

We should not back down from our defense of free expression. But we should also counteract the bad impression these incidents leave in the popular mind by promoting the Internet as a friendly and valuable communal space. About half the Americans without Internet access at home say that they have no desire to log in. We must reach out to this potential constituency, who are voting for the officials who will determine our future.

We must encourage cities to get on the Internet and use it for serious discourse. We should promote access through schools, libraries, and community centers. By broadening its base, the Internet community can help to repair the damage to our image by making it truly a medium for all.

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