May 30, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The Internet, in the nimble hands of its far-flung and infinitely resourceful users, foils many a government initiative. Last week the French government, which is already worried about the ease with which people in other countries can send illegal content across its borders, found out once again how much the Internet can undermine the best-laid plans.

The battle fought in this case was over a law prohibiting the publication of poll results within the last several days before an election. The government determined (as researchers have also found in the U.S.) that publication of polls can skew voter behavior. Voters may withdraw their votes from a party that seems to have no chance of winning, or decide not to vote at all because the effort seems to be of no value.

Commendably, the government wanted to avoid such distortions in how the public expresses its will. But the prohibition they chose to levy had no effect in neighboring countries, where many Internet servers carried the banned news. The actual effects were probably negligible, because Internet use is relatively low in France. Yet an ominous chord was sounded: don’t bother to restrict access to information, because it will flow across your borders in any case.

I can definitely sympathize with the government. I am disgusted myself with the poll-driven, sound-bite-laden farces that characterize American campaigns. Too many people vote neither their interests nor their consciences, but only superficial impressions gained on their way to the polling booths. In this week’s French elections, it was a toss-up whether many a disaffected supporter of the ruling conservatives would move to the left to vote for the Communists or to the right to support the National Front. But our disdain for the process doesn’t have to translate to a ban on information.

Despite the long traditions in Greek philosophy and the Jewish and Christian religions alike that say, “The truth shall set you free,” the Internet is increasingly denigrated by those who find harm in the dissemination of certain information. Undoubtedly, they are provoked by materials far more objectionable than poll results: Nazi race baiting, child pornography, and instructions for making bombs. While few countries come down as heavily as the U.S. with the Communications Decency Act, many are considering some form of legislation affecting the Internet. The European Commission has asked member countries to come together to stop “harmful and illegal content,” and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has decried the availability of child pornography.

But the information revolution has to be considered in the same light as the many other technological advances that transformed our times. When we wring our hands over greenhouse gas emissions, the ravages of drunk drivers, and the threats to our physical and mental health represented by automobiles, we could well wish that these vehicles were never invented. Seeing the carnage created by guns, both domestically and in war, we would not be blamed for trying to ban them forever.

Yet cars also represent an amazing advance in human freedom—as workers who have escaped company towns could attest, as well as any of us who remembers the freedom we felt after earning our driver’s license as a teenager—and guns have been hailed as “the great equalizer.”

Technological advances have an up side and a down side, and we must welcome the Internet with the same bittersweet recognition of its effects. We need not repress the pollsters. If we want a more informed and active electorate, the Internet can help us attain that through the promulgation of information and the provision of debating forums.

The recent French elections suffered from image problems that dwarfed anything polls could offer. Thanks to the weak stances of the major parties—who offered insufficient vision and unpersuasive solutions to serious problems, while trying to claim the “center” and appeal to everybody—disaffection was rife, leading to fears that turn-out would be low. (The final statistics, with 68 percent of the registered voters proffering ballots, actually looks stellar by U.S. standards.) High unemployment—officially at 12.8 percent but reaching over 25 percent of French youth—and an eroding social welfare structure made citizens doubt the value of participating in elections. And no one blamed the Internet for the impressive 15 percent of the vote claimed by the virtually fascist National Front party.

In short, the polling conflict should teach us a lesson that we must not blame information for the problems of society. We should use the wonderful new digital tools to fight the many ills we face, of which obnoxious Internet content is only a symptom. This is no time to give way to a virtual Luddism that can impose burdens on the spread of technology.

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