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A World of Freedom with Chains Attached

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Everyone has heard of the Internet and how it is going to help set the world free. The Internet is the fastest growing form of communication and is becoming more and more commonplace in the average American home. Companies these days do big business over the Internet, and online shopping has grown tremendously in the last few years. For instance, the online auction site eBay sells millions of items every year online. Many companies are making even more plans to expand their business to the Internet. Wireless, borderless communication and the uninterrupted flow of information have been promised to bring democracy, education, and culture to every corner of the world with a phone line. Unfortunately, there have been numerous attempts lately to censor the Internet in the name of "decency." If the Net is controlled, regulated, restricted, or censored in order to keep it "clean," it will have severe effects on its capabilities and potential.

In recent years, America and other leading countries' economies have become increasingly dependent on the need to instantly move large amounts of information across long distances. Computerization has changed everyone's life in ways that were never before imagined. The global network of interconnected computers allows people to send electronic mail messages across the world in the blink of an eye and stay updated on world events as they happen; the world has become a much smaller place as a result of this global communication and exchange of ideas. There have also become thousands of online "communities" of people who share common interests through message boards, chat rooms, and electronic mailing lists (Wilmott 106).

At present, the Internet is the ultimate demonstration of the first amendment: free speech. Here is a place where people can speak their mind without being punished for what they say or how they choose to say it. The Internet owes its incredible worldwide success to its protection of free speech, not only in America, but also in countries where freedom of speech is not guaranteed. For some, it is the only place where they can speak their mind without fear of political or religious persecution ("Cyberchaos").

The Net is also one of America's most valuable types of technology; scientists use email for quick and easy communication. They post their current scientific discoveries on online newsgroups so other scientists in the same field of study all over the world can know in minutes. Ordinary people use the Internet for communication, expressing their opinions in the newsgroups, obtaining up-to-date information from the WWW, downloading all types of media files, or just "surfing" for their own personal enjoyment.

The Internet can also be compared to a church. In many ways the Internet is like a church: it has its council of leaders, every member has an opinion about how things should work, and they can either take part if they choose to or sit back and watch everyone else. It's the choice of the user. The Internet has no president, chief operating officer, or Pope. Single networks or local Internet service providers (ISPs) may have presidents and CEO's, but that is different; there is no single authority figure for the Internet in general. As stated by Frances Hentoff in the article "Indecent Proposal," "on an info superhighway driven by individuals, there are no cops preventing users from downloading" (Hentoff 1). Users of the Internet have the freedom to express anything they believe. The fact that the Net has no single authority figure creates a problem about what kind of materials should be available on the Net.

The largest controversy that surrounds regulating the Net deals with what type of broadcasting medium it should be considered. The Internet can be viewed in many different ways. It can be considered a carrier of common data, similar to a phone company, which must ignore what is broadcast for privacy reasons. Or, it can be considered a distributor and broadcaster of information, much like a television or radio station, which is solely responsible for what it broadcasts and has to conform to federal standards and FCC regulations for obscenity. This debate is at the core of the censorship matter. Obviously, the Internet is a carrier of information, and not a broadcaster, since it only provides the basic structure for information transfer and sharing. But this frustrates lawmakers. The current body of laws existing today in America does not apply well to the Internet. Is the Internet like a bookstore, where servers cannot be expected to review every title? Is it like a phone company who must ignore what it carries for privacy reasons and is not responsible for what is carried through its service? Or is the Net a form of broadcasting, like a radio or television station, in which the government can monitor, control, and regulate what is broadcast? The trouble is that the Internet can be all or none of these things depending on how it's used. The Internet cannot be viewed as one type of transfer medium under current broadcast definitions ("Muzzling the Internet"). One large difference that sets the Internet apart from a broadcasting media is the fact that one can't stumble across a vulgar or obscene site without first entering a complicated address or following a link from another source. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, if one wants to find "dirty" material on the Internet, one has to go out and look for it to find it.

The Internet is much more like going into a bookstore and choosing to look at adult magazines than it is like channel surfing on television (Miller 75). The Internet is a great place of entertainment and education, but like all places used by millions of people, it has some dark corners people would rather not have their children explore. Society as a whole generally tries to protect children, but there are no social or physical constraints to Internet surfing. For this reason, there have been numerous attempts at censoring the Net in the name of protecting children. One example is the Communications Decency Act of 1995. The Communications Decency Act, also known as the Internet Censorship Act, was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1995. It would make it a criminal offense to make available to children anything that is indecent, or to send anything indecent with "intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass." The goal of this bill as written (though not as stated by its proponents), was to try to make all public material on the Internet suitable for young children. The bill would have made certain commercial servers that carry pictures of nudity, like those run by Penthouse or Playboy, be shut down immediately or face prosecution. The same goes for



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