Using the Internet with Wisdom

(This article, in a Portuguese translation, was published in the Correio Braziliense on 18 July 1997.)

The Internet is being used on a daily basis by millions of people around the world, ranging from toddlers to great-grandmothers. A collection of electronic networks linked by phone lines and available to anyone with a computer system, the Internet is the largest collection of information the world has ever seen.

Educationally, it offers up-to-date publications by world-class research institutions, and occasionally a chance to directly query the experts. Politically, it will eventually by used by all political parties to explain their points of view, and by citizens to conduct debates at their leisure.

I need not expound on the opportunities for shopping, for social opportunities (my 84-year-old mother loves her online book discussion group), and even for entertainment. The Internet, when used wisely, can raise the availability of information and the opportunities for discussion. Many of us hope it will revitalize public discourse and democracy.

Yet a segment of politically conservative forces are calling for restrictions on the Internet, restrictions that would sometimes make it quite hard for socially valuable sites to operate. Interest groups and the politicians that they support are portraying the Internet as a distribution medium for pornography, political subversion, and scams.

The solutions they suggest range from technically unfeasible regulations to outrageous limitations on privacy and the freedom of expression. However, debate in the mass media rarely reaches a level of serious technical and legal discussion, because those who criticize the Internet keep the focus on titillating and sensational incidents.

The openness of the Internet is its strength; it has something for everyone. This quality can be fatally compromised if we try to suppress viewpoints or materials. Instead of worrying about possible corrupting influences, we must learn to capitalize on the strengths of the Internet. Let me illustrate the approach by giving two examples in which the Internet seemed to attack national goals.

Before the elections of May 1997, the French government discovered that its law against posting results of political polls was being undermined by Internet users. The government had an admirable goal in ruling that polls should not be publicized in the final days of election campaigns: they wanted to prevent people from changing their votes on the basis of superficial impressions about public opinion. But the relatively few French citizens on the Internet could get the poll results, because they were posted on Web sites in neighboring countries.

In the same month, the Canadian government tried to take action to enforce an election law: a requirement that every political advertisement identify the sponsoring person or organization. This law, like the French law on polls, had the most commendable goal of preserving the democratic character of elections: the purpose was to prevent party supporters from subverting campaign finance laws. But in defense of the higher right to anonymity, Web sites around the world put up ads that Canadian citizens could read.

What is the proper response to these expressions of free speech? Both the French and the Canadian laws reflected negative and cynical views of the electorate. Instead of restricting certain kinds of information, the governments should use information to promote deeper and more effective ways to involve the electorate. And here the Internet is an ally. People online can ask candidates direct questions, for example, and exchange their ideas with fellow citizens at length. Parties can disseminate position papers that anyone can look at for essentially no cost. With a better-educated and more engaged electorate, the deleterious effects of polls and advertisements can be reduced.

What about pornography, hate speech, libel, and other nasty excrescences that appear on the Internet? Here again, we must learn to counter-act them instead of overreacting. Nobody is forced to look at pornography. It is available to those who seek it, and it remains limited to these people’s screens—quite different from pornography in a local bookstore, where the whole community can see it.

The key to accepting the Internet is to understand that everybody has a chance to speak. With just a little study one can put up a World Wide Web page, which most companies providing Internet service offer to their users for a reasonable fee. With even less study one can send messages to large groups of readers, through newsgroups and mailing lists.

Democracy of access is the Internet’s great contribution to public education and debate. But not all speakers are equally knowledgeable or scrupulous. You must realize that a Web page or a message on a newsgroup, no matter how professional it appears, was never reviewed by independent, recognized experts for accuracy. The most minimal quality checks imposed in a newspaper or journal are lacking on the Internet—unless you go to a site put up by a respected institution. And lying on the fringes of this open medium are the sites that are truly anti-social and offensive. Even these give pleasure to some people; if they bother you, you must learn to dismiss them as manifestations of individual mental pathology.

As the French and Canadian experiences proved, one cannot suppress what people want to do. One is better off ignoring them. The history of censorship has shown that, regardless of its initial goals, it denies the public access to valuable literature, art, and political opinion. The greatest gift of Internet, ultimately, may be to teach us to trust ourselves: our values, our personal judgement, and our ability to choose and discriminate.

Andy Oram, 41 years old, is an editor at the publisher O’Reilly Media in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the most respected in the field of computers in the United States. He has been a user of the Internet for 12 years.