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Dallas Morning News

Internet finds voice of the people in fine forum

By Jeffrey Weiss,
Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

The concept sounds like a nightmare assignment from high school civics: Write an essay about what freedom of expression and the Internet means to

But 24 Hours of Democracy was anything but an academic exercise for almost 1,000 people all over the United States and across the world who poured their ideas, hopes and fears into essays about about the on-line future.

The inspiration for the Internet event was the Communications Decency Act, a tiny part of the recently enacted Telecommunications Reform Bill that president Clinton signed into law last month.

One paragraph amid thousands sets a new standard for regulation of what has been computer-linked anarchy. The law makes on-line transmission of "indecent" material that children might see a federal crime.

That restriction is nothing less than a call to virtual arms for some people.

"The colorful adjectives are also slowly disappearing from the postings, and what was once diverse opinions (sometimes to the point of rage!) is now peaches and cream." bemoaned Willy Borchardt of El Paso in his essay. "As someone in Finland remarked recently "Who is this FBI that is going to throw me in jail?"

Sen. James Exon; D-NE, and one of the CDA's co-sponsors, made his case for the law in the Senate debate last year:

"A slip of a four letter word or showing nudity for legitimate reasons has never been, nor would it be, found indecent," he said. "Those in the ACLU and EFF (Electronic Freedom Foundation) who sound the screeching alarm are merely trying to deafen the gullible to drown out the screams of the children and parents who are being screamed off the modern age's most promising tool for education and global communications."

"The bottom line is simple," CDA co-sponsor Sen. Dan Coats; R-IN, said during the same debate. "We are removing indecency from areas of cyberspace that are easily accessible to children."

But the bottom line is far different to opponents of the law including Dave Winer -- software engineer and columnist for the on-line magazine HotWired. Opponents fear that the decency standard would not always be so reasonably applied. They fear the law will reduce the Net to the on-line equivalent of the children's section of a public library.

About a week after Mr. Clinton signed the bill into law on Feb. 8, Mr. Winer put out a call over e-mail -- the Internet version of word of mouth -- for people to write essays on Washington's Birthday and place them on the Internet for public viewing. An explanation of the project and an Internet gateway to the essays can be found at the Internet address: http:/

Mr. Winer was able to enlist the donated help of America Online, Apple Computers and other top-level computer-related companies. And he got an essay from Bill Gates, cyberbillionare head of Microsoft.

But most of the essays were from people famous only to their own friends and families.

The essays are linked in a way that lets a reader jump from one essay to the next. The Internet is a network of computers held together by telephone lines. The essays are held in dozens of those computers, some thousands of miles from each other, but connected by software programs that allow one electronic address to be attached to another.

The result is a cyber-macrame network that would eventually carry a very patient reader to every essay at least once, on-line jump by on-line jump.

The work is uneven -- a million words of unedited humanity. One supporter of the protest even dismissed the essays in an e-mail message: "The project seems an abject failure -- a bunch of incoherent boobs preaching to the choir."

But the essays also include passages of wit and eloquence.

`Of course, it is also true that just as television gave us the potential for more Nova and National Geographic Specials and Ken Burns, it also gave us more Geraldo and Oprah; the Internet will have both its positive and its negative aspects," wrote Duane Bristow of Albany, Ky.

Using a computer-generated index to identify the number of essays in which a word appears offers a sort of high-altitude snapshot of the project's verbal terrain.

The word "compromise" was found in 16 essays. The word "fight" was included in 134. "Freedom" was in 571 essays; "responsibility" in 143. The dreaded "f" word was in 31 essays. The despised "n" word was in only two, both times in a highly disapproving context.

"Fear" and "hope" locked in nearly a dead heat, found in 178 and 177 essays, respectively.

Brad Neuberg, a student at Columbia University in New York, was one of several writers who offered what has become a commonplace tale of on-line connections:

"I've discussed crime with a retired policeman, philosophy with a professor from Dartmouth, raising children with a mother of five, revolutionary art with a South American artist, Christianity with a famous theologian, and Judaism with a distinguished rabbi."

The three members of the Glaser family of Champaign, Ill, each contributed a few words. Eddie Glaser offered his perspective:

"I am 12 years old and in seventh grade. I've been on America Online for about two years. My father told me the same thing about AOL as he did about the phone, walking to school, or doing anything of that sort. He said that if anyone bothers me, or if I see something that is inappropriate, to come and talk with him, which I do."

Some of the authors were able to find valid points on both sides of the debate.

`The CDA does not exist because people are responsible with their freedoms and someone then maliciously decides to make some arbitrary moral judgements about this speech," e-mailed Stephan Vladimir Bugaj, a senior research programmer in San Francisco."(some) People on the Internet have not been taking responsibilty for the expression of their liberties, and because of this we all stand to lose them."

The law has already been challenged twice in federal court. The first challenge was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that "indecency" sets too vague a legal standard. On February 15 a federal judge agreed, ordering that the "indecency" portion of the law not be applied pending further judicial review.

A second challenge, filed last week by a consortium of 23 on-line services, software manufacturers and journalism organizations, suggested that the Internet is entitled to the First Amendment protections offered print rather than the restrictions allowed on broadcast material. That case is still under review.

And bills that would repeal all or parts of the law have been filed in Congress.

[A2]But 24 Hours of Democracy may not be terribly meaningful as a political act. [A1]A thousand people are seldom enough to affect national policy on their own, says David Coursey, editor of the industry newsletter PC Letter.

"I have 100 people on a mailing list for indoor soccer," he says. "This is just so much hand wringing."

Instead of defending an absolute right to freedom of speech that doesn't even exist outside Cyberspace, Internet advocates would better spend their time figuring out technological ways to offer voluntary restrictions on what children can find on-line, he says.

But Mr. Coursey notes an aspect to the "24 Hours in Democracy" project that transcends normal politics and even normal conversation, on or offline.

"How long has it been since we were able to bring people together and think about the liberties we're given?" he asks.

After the initial flood of essays, Mr. Winer decided to expand the original "24 hours" concept. Information about how to submit a new essay can be found at the main Internet address.

Carey Tews of Memphis, TN, considered the dispute from the Christian perspective of the Lenten season and concluded that both sides risk losing something precious.

"We, too, are vulnerable to temptation," she wrote. "We label people we disagree with, just as we are labeled."

"Beware of fanaticism, whatever your beliefs," Ms. Tews wrote. "There is no "They.""

Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1996 Dallas Morning News.

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