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THE INTERNET, FREE SPEECH, AND YOU; notes from the front line
"By reason of the removal of all external restraint, all clashing with
other things, he comes actually to believe that he is the only one that
exists, and gets used to not considering others, especially not
considering them as superior to himself."
Jose Ortega y Gasset
THE REVOLT OF THE MASSES
Part One: A Problem
When the terms "free speech" and "Internet" are mentioned in one
breath, it is usually in the context of some discussion of pornography.
And, as good degenerates, most of us are usually on the side of the
pornographers - whether we enjoy Net porn or not - because of the
principle of our right to free speech.
Well and good. Most of us recall enough from High School civics
and history to know that the good old 1st Amendment recognises,
enshrines, and protects our right to free speech and expression - and the
High Court has, in recent years, interpreted the Amendment in such
fashion as to confirm the conviction that government cannot easily
deprive us of this right without very good reason - and even then the
government is on shaky ground.
But did you know that property rights are held, in our country,
to be of more importance, to carry more weight than our speech rights as
citizens of a democracy? And did you know that you can find this
absolutisation of property rights exemplified on the W.W.W.?
Part Two: Getting Around the Constitution and Other Corporate Hobbies
TIME/WARNER, the same folks who brought you Ice-T's COP KILLER
album, who own TIME MAGAZINE, PEOPLE, LIFE, and a host of other media,
also own a Bulletin Board System called PATHFINDER which boasts
world-wide participation in discussions on a variety of topics, some
serious and some more frivolous.
I frequent said site quite regularly and have for 7 or 8 months
in order to engage in philosophical discussions, when these can be found.
However, recently (2 months past), on a thread dedicated to Racism, the
board host - an employee of TIME/WARNER - deleted a post from a neo-Nazi
because the post in question was sprinkled with racial slurs. Several
posters (myself included) argued (and are arguing) with the host that
censorship was uncalled for - only to have one of the defenders of speech
rights get a post deleted for 'ad hominem argumentation.' In layman's
terms - for calling someone a name. What was the name? The fellow
referred to the Nazi as 'Colonel Klink,' the stupi Commandant of Stalag
13... on HOGAN's HEROES. That minor infraction was punished in the same
manner as the Nazi's post, practically equating them.
Without going into detail as to the ongoing battle, the
representative of TIME/WARNER has had us know that property rights always
over-ride speech rights because whomever owns the property also is
allowed to make the rules. His analogy was a house party where anyone
can come in but must obey a set of rules - e.g. no smoking, no cursing,
etc. Or, if one is a landowner and puts up a bulletin board on one's
lawn, no one who uses the board has any say-so over whether the owner
removes some or all of the posts or removes the billboard altogether.
Part Three: Implications
What the corporate representative is, in truth, arguing for is
the establishment of a de facto government inside the Net which is immune
to the safeguards of the Constitution and its Amendments. In other
words, they are arguing that whoever buys up and controls the means of
mass-communications (such as the PATHFINDER Board is) can then limit
what is communicated on the Web through that resource as the means of
displaying ideas will be privately owned and, so, privately regulated in
whatever manner the owners decide is right or commercially viable. That
or we'll see the day when we have to pay for privacy. But I believe, not
only are the implications of this position repulsive, they are erroneous.
First, property rights are derived from what a human being needs
in order to live a good life. A corporation is NOT EVEN ALIVE - it
isn't a person. Whatever 'rights' it has are the ones we, as a society,
grant it. That we treat and speak of corporations and business 'as if'
they were humans is merely force of habit, a metaphor which slowly has
concretised into a pseudo-reality by means of propaganda, PR campaigns,
and the like. Yet, the truth remains that a corporation is not a human,
hence it has no reason to expect to be treated as one.
Second, my house and property are an entirely different than a
corporation creating a means of mass communication, similar to a
telephone service with 'porous' multi-party lines or multiple conference
lines. No one lives at PATHFINDER, for another thing; and no one
invites everyone who passes by into their livingroom and tries to make
money from selling ad space on the walls ; Law already makes a strong
distinction between residential and commercial property. Just ask the
Third, The area is 'for profit,' due to the presence of
advertisements; but those who post there are not paid for providing the
very content of the site. Thus, it would seem that the space is more of
a co-operative venture among board users, advertisers, and PATHFINDER -
thus rendering the site quasi-public and immune to the simplistic methods
of censorship which the host prefers to written warnings, tribunals,
suspensions, etc., which are management tools more compatable with
Part Four: What Sort of a Web Do You Want?
I've presented an example of the direction I think the Net will
take as corporations, motivated by the bottom line and immune to laws
governing censorship, begin to excersise increasing control over the
means of communication. If you are of the tribe which believes that
government regulation is simply evil, I ask you to reconsider; the
government - when it functions properly - can step in as a referee
between minorities and majorities, or between those who control capital
and means of production (or communications) ; and it can also intervene
between those who have no capital, no voice, and those who are
privaledged and powerful, thus evening out the playing field. When we
demand of ourselves something better than the government we now have, the
possibility arises that justice might be done and that we might have some
say-so as to what the future looks like. Otherwise, capitalism and its
laissez-faire minions are going to design it to fit their dreams, not
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