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The Net's Strange Day
What was intended as a 24-hour celebration
Rick Smolan's 24 Hours In Cyberspace was supposed to be a round-the-clock, planet-spanning online party, a feel-good cyberfest celebrating the paradigm-shifting possibilities of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Smolan, the photographer and entrepreneur behind the hugely successful Day in the Life series of photo books that have documented everyday life in Spain, Japan, Australia, the U.S.S.R and the U.S., hoped to do the same for the growing world of interconnected computers.
But by coincidence--and a turn of political events--the 24 hours Smolan chose to document turned out to be anything but a celebration. For they fell on the very day last week that President Clinton signed a telecommunications bill containing easily the most reviled piece of legislation in cyberspace: the Communications Decency Act. The law imposes stiff penalties for posting or transmitting "indecent" material online--a provision that would strip from online communications the First Amendment guarantees that protect the written and spoken word.
So, as Smolan's team of 150 professional photographers (and some 1,000 amateurs) fanned out around the world with digital as well as conventional cameras trying to capture images showing how the Internet is making a difference in people's lives, another group of Net pioneers was preparing to save the network from what they see as an all-out government attack. And while Smolan's editors worked feverishly to construct a colorful series of Web pages out of the flood of photos pouring in to "Mission Control" in San Francisco, hundreds of Internet protesters turned their Web sites black.
Civil libertarians argue that the Decency Act would, in the name of protecting children, criminalize everything from safe-sex information to The Catcher in the Rye. Says Shabbir Safdar, co-founder of the activist group Voters' Telecommunications Watch: "They basically want to turn the Internet into Barney the dinosaur." The Clinton Administration had opposed earlier versions of the bill but refused to hold up the entire Telecommunications Act to get rid of it. Pressed on the issue, a defensive Al Gore told reporters, "We're obligated to administer the law, but we said from the start this particular provision will stand or fall in court."
A preliminary decision in that regard could come as early as this week. No sooner had Clinton signed the bill than the American Civil Liberties Union and nearly two dozen other plaintiffs filed suit in federal court to have the indecency clause declared unconstitutional. The Department of Justice has a week to show cause why the judge should not impose a temporary restraining order. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have agreed not to enforce the new law for now and stipulated in court that a second provision, criminalizing the electronic distribution of abortion information, was a violation of free speech.
Back in Smolan's Mission Control, though, the Decency Act was mostly a side issue. Smolan declined to drape his pages in black, although he did include a fiercely worded attack on the legislation by Internet activist John Perry Barlow, and he did agree late in the day to add to his "Welcome" screen a blue ribbon signifying solidarity with the protesters. But he did not go out of his way to cover the protest; it is mentioned only briefly in the story that accompanies an electronic image of the Clinton signing ceremony.
Indeed, Smolan's site gave few indications that cyberspace is anything but a realm of bliss. Among the thousands of images that streamed into San Francisco were ghetto kids in California playing computer games, Bhuddists monks spreading the word online and wheelchair-using students in Thailand communicating with disabled kids all around the world.
If the project proved anything, it was that nothing leaps over national boundaries like the Net. The photos showed that, whether American, Vietnamese, Malaysian or Albanian, computer users hunched over their screens all look pretty much alike. Indeed, however inadvertently, Smolan may have advanced the cause against cybercensorship. At least some of the 1 million people estimated to have visited his Website last week saw--perhaps for the first time--that despite what some politicians would have us believe, the Internet carries much more than dirty pictures. --Reported by David Bjerklie/New York and David S. Jackson/San Francisco
© copyright Time Inc. 1996
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