March 21, 1996
Patroling Electronic Highways
The Philadephia Hearings: Free Speech v. Child Protection
Join a Discussion on The Communications Decency Act
By WALTER GOODMAN
here is something about the Internet that does not love communication. Experts or visionaries trying to explain what it portends find themselves resorting to metaphors -- superhighway, global public space -- that are far from crystal clear.
Maybe it's just the newness of the thing or its still-unformed nature or the immensity and untidiness of the prospect of all that stuff being spewed endlessly, from everywhere to everywhere without any traffic director.
Whatever the difficulties, they prove too much for "Firing Line" debate. Despite the large title -- "Resolved: The Government Has the Right to Regulate the Internet" -- the argument narrows to provisions of the Communications Decency Act, passed this year, that would crack down on "indecent" material that might be seen by children.
Since not all the panelists claim to know exactly what the law says, and those who do know disagree vehemently on important details, viewers are likely to emerge from these two noisy hours perplexed about whether the new law will protect children or repress adults.
It does not help that Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union and the program's free-speech champ, keeps interrupting his opponent, as if he were trying out for "Crossfire."
William F. Buckley Jr., proprietor, sums up with fair accuracy, "This exchange has taken absolutely ludicrous turns." And Michael Kinsley, moderating, says, "Well, I think both sides were passing each other in the night a little bit here." If you're casting around for a metaphor, Mike, try a Highway of Babel.
Firing Line: "Resolved: The Government Has the Right to Regulate the Internet" 9 p.m. ET Friday on PBS Warren Steibel, producer and director Participants: Michael Kinsley (moderator); and William F. Buckley Jr., Arianna Huffington, Cathy Cleaver, Reid Hoffman, Esther Dyson, Ira Glasser, Susan Estrich, John Perry Barlow.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company