Published on the Internet April, 1996...
I hope that when you are reading this, the legislation regarding the Communications Decency Act and this attempt at censoring the Internet is simply a bad memory. Perhaps you are researching a paper on how the Internet was almost killed by laws that would restrict all communication to the level appropriate for a very young child. But as I write this in April 1996, the Communications Decency Act is very much in force, and it scares me to think that it might stay that way.
I was recently talking to a high school class about computers and the Internet. The subject of censorship came up and I illustrated the problem with the following statement: "Want to know how I feel about censorship on the Internet? I really am pissed off."
Repeating that sentence in that classroom in front of those students was in bad taste, but it did not violate any laws. Sending that same statement to any one of those students by email would violate the Communications Decency Act because it contains a word that is classified as "indecent." The word used in a motion picture, for example, will guarantee that the film will not be suitable for young children, and the film will not get a G rating.
Including that word in this message and posting it on an Internet server where it is possible that a young person could read it violates the current law. Because I did that, I could now be fined and sent to jail for up to two years. I could be in jail, as you read this.
I also told the class that some people would like very much to eliminate all access to certain kinds of information. They are not only afraid of your seeing and knowing about ideas, they even want to prevent your access to facts and data that they personally find indecent or offensive.
As an example of how restrictive this is, you might try to find out how many abortions were performed in a particular year. This is a number. This number is not indecent; it is simply a number. Finding this particular number would in itself be a very interesting search because there are conflicting data. Under the current laws, you would be blocked from using the Internet to consult organizations like Planned Parenthood and others that could tell you what they think the number is. If you wrote a paper about your search for this number, and then sent your report to someone over the Internet, you could be in trouble. If something in your writing was judged to be a violation of the Communications Decency Act, you could also go to jail or be fined.
I have been a writer most of my life and I have bumped up against censorship more than once. I have had late-night phone calls from those who threatened to beat me up if I didn't stop writing my opinions about certain people and their ideas. Writing software is a little safer. So far nobody has wanted to end my life or harm me because of a program I wrote. Today, they only want to prevent me from telling you how I feel about censorship on the Internet. And I really am pissed off.
Dick Ainsworth, April 1996
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