GILLMOR: Help put a stop to censorship in cyberspace GILLMOR: Help put a stop to censorship in cyberspace

By Dan Gillmor
Mercury News Computing Editor

MOST people, when baffled by some new technology, just stay away until they have a clue as to what they're doing. Some members of Congress don't wait -- they go ahead and legislate.

That seems to be the case now, as the U.S. Senate considers a bill from the word processor of James Exon, a Nebraska Democrat. Like most bad ideas out of Washington, it bears a motherhood-and-apple-pie name: the Communications Decency Act of 1995. The formal name is Senate Bill 314.

Anyone using a computer to ``annoy, abuse, threaten or harass'' anyone else could be liable for fines up to $100,000. Anyone who ``transmits or otherwise makes available'' offensive words or images would be liable. Anything deemed ``obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent'' could carry criminal penalties.

Is that vague enough for you? If it passes, a lot of lawyers' kids will go to college on the proceeds from figuring out what it all means. Meanwhile, the on-line world -- and the privacy of your communications -- will be jeopardized.

The Exon legislation could force on-line providers -- from your local bulletin board to CompuServe to networks attached to the Internet -- to monitor and censor messages. In theory, they'd be obliged to read all publicly posted messages, and perhaps your e-mail as well, to ensure that you didn't post anything objectionable.

I GUESS, then, that we should prosecute Ford when bank robbers make their getaway in a Taurus. Who defines objectionable, anyway? Almost anyone, it seems. This means the most repressive communities will set standards for the rest of us: Small towns in the Bible Belt will tell Silicon Valley residents what speech is acceptable.

Yes, there's plenty of gritty fare in cyberspace. But this bill would engender a worse alternative: Pablum.

I'm offended by much of what I read and see today, whether it's in newspapers, movies, cable TV or on-line. Occasional jerks send me e-mail that's just this side of hateful. But I'd never censor it. I'm with those who believe in more persuasive speech as an antidote to bad or ugly speech.

There always have been some restrictions on speech. In the classic example, you can't shout ``fire'' in a crowded theater unless it's actually burning. And I wouldn't establish an absolute right to repeatedly phone someone in the middle of the night and threaten bodily harm.

Unfortunately, there's an increasing willingness in America to censor. The Left wants to stop ``hate'' speech; the Right hates raunch. Only the Libertarians seem to get it: One price of living in a relatively free society is that in order to protect our own speech we have to protect other people's speech, no matter how much it may offend us. WE'RE lucky that Exon's bill isn't already law. The media (including me) were sleeping last fall when he attached it to telecommunications legislation that unexpectedly failed, for entirely unrelated reasons.

Don't expect help from the Clinton administration, which has made clear its hostility to cyberspace civil liberties. And don't expect Republicans to defend your rights in an era when hysteria has replaced reason.

Help yourself. Help stop censorship in cyberspace, and you'll be protecting your rights to read, hear and view what you choose -- in any medium. Help stop this bill, and you'll help ensure the privacy of your own communications.

Call or write Exon. Call or write this state's U.S. senators and your local member of the House of Representatives. (A House version also is pending.) Urge them to stop this misguided idea before it becomes dangerous law. The Capitol phone number is (202) 224-3121. Write your senators at the U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510; write House members at the U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. 20515.

And remember one of the better pieces of on-line advice I've ever seen: The delete key is your friend.

Write Dan Gillmor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, CA 95190; call (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917. Mercury Center: dgillmor . Internet: dgillmor@sjmercury.com . Published 3/12/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.

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