The Fight for Internet Decency

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 contains a lot more reforms than the Communications Decency Act. All of the hype on the Internet has focused on the CDA, but has overlooked the new reforms that could drastically change the way we get on-line. Internet Service Providers as we know them may cease to exist. Other items in the bill are of little interest except to MCI and AT&T.

One of the biggest changes is a law that permits a 'free-for-all' between phone and cable companies to provide internet access. US West has plans to buy Continental Cablevision, and AT&T has demonstrated a plan for national Internet access for $20 a month. This act will allow companies to merge, invade others' territories, and offer phone, TV and Internet in one nice neat package. Phone companies will push Internet access and ISDN modems; cable companies will offer cable modems. This cable technology will allow you to connect your modem to your TV cable, connecting at approximately 10 mbps, eventually as high as 30 mbps. This will provide greater competition, and that means lower rates and more options for the consumer.

Another huge change is the section that allows local phone networks to offer long-distance service. The Regional Bell networks will probably start service later this fall. Long-distance carriers and cable companies can now provide local service, and MCI has already begun doing just that in Boston. MCI has plans to market their local service in 25 cities this year. AT&T has plans to start local networks by early fall, offering competitive rates. AT&T also has plans to offer local, long-distance, cellular and satellite TV. Even cable companies can now offer local phone service. This means that you can get TV, phone and Internet access through either your phone or cable company.

The Communications Decency Act was the most hotly contested parts of the Telecommunications Act. It has recently been ruled unconstitutional by a panel of Federal judges. Senator James Exon, [D] Nebraska was the most vocal supporter of the bill, while Senator Leahy of Vermont was a staunch opponent. As one of his tactics to oppose the bill, Sen. Leahy started a petition against the CDA, which generated 115,000 signatures in 5 months. On average, that means that someone different signed the petition every one minute and 45 seconds. All 1500 pages of the petition were shown on the Senate floor. He also asked the Federal Department of Justice to comment. Their official statement read,

"[The CDA] would significantly thwart enforcement of existing laws regarding obscenity and child pornography, create several ways for distributors and packages of obscenity and child pornography to avoid criminal liability, and threaten important First Amendment and privacy rights."

Even with the Dept. of Justice's statement that the bill would be useless for its stated purpose, it was not enough to hinder the passing of the bill. Speaker Gingrich himself had this to say:

"I think that the [CDA] will have no real meaning and have no real impact and in fact I don't think will survive. It is clearly a violation of free speech and it's a violation of the right of adults to communicate with each other. I don't agree with it and I don't think it is a serious way to discuss a serious issue, which is, how do you maintain the right of free speech for adults while also protecting children in a medium which is available to both? That's also frankly a problem with television and radio, and it's something that we have to wrestle with in a calm and mature way as a society. I think by offering a very badly thought out and not very productive amendment, if anything, that put the debate back a step."

After the bill was signed into law, thousands of Netizens turned their web pages black for 48 hours in protest. The ACLU, backed by the EFF, filed a lawsuit almost immediately to contest the constitutionality of the CDA. Needless to say, they won.

Many people do not understand why this small section of the Telecommunications Act was so hotly contested. There are many reasons, only a few of which are listed here.

No longer would Internet users be able to take part in far-roaming discussions on newsgroups or chat areas that minors could access. Language and topics would have to be maintained at a Kindergarten level just in case a minor wandered in. Any user who does anything that is deemed "indecent" could spend two years in jail.

Some services did not wait to begin censoring where they thought it would be necessary. AOL deleted the profile of a woman who communicated with fellow breast-cancer survivors on-line. They did it because she used the "vulgar" word "breast." [AOL later apologized and said the word could be used "where appropriate."]

We are lucky that we have the right to free speech, and we have to fight to keep that right. If we allow government to infringe on it, even a little, then next year it will want a little more, then a little more. It will all seem reasonable, little by little, until we are living under the grip of "Big Brother." Senator Leahy states it best when he says,

"The Internet is a great new communications medium. We should not underestimate the effect that the heavy-hand of government regulation will have on its future growth both here and abroad. With the passage of this bill the US Government is paving the way for the censorship of Internet speech."

Our elected representatives are the ones who make these decisions. Don't forget that we choose who they are. Exercise your power. Exercise your vote.

Seth Waddell

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