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Return of the Cyber-Censors

   The Washington Post, November 8, 1995.

   Return of the Cyber-Censors [Editorial]

   When the Senate passed its ill-advised "Exon amendment" to
   the telecommunications bill last spring, which would
   criminalize the transmission of obscene, pornographic or
   "indecent" material on the Internet, the measure got an
   overwhelming 84 votes, many of them from senators who
   didn't understand the implications of the move. Only a few
   weeks later, the House went even more overwhelmingly the
   other way, voting 420 to 4 for an amendment (co-sponsored
   by Reps. Ron Wyden and Christopher Cox) that would bar the
   Federal Communications Commission from regulating
   cyberspace and would instead make it legally easier for
   commercial Internet providers to use their own technical
   tools to regulate questionable material.

   The contrast was the result of a burst of public discussion
   in which more technologically astute members, including
   House Speaker Newt Gingrich, caught on to the disturbing
   fact that the kinds of far-reaching liability imposed by
   Sen. James Exon's formulation -- hastily adapted from an
   existing measure on telephone transmission -- would cripple
   practically any commercial Internet provider and
   effectively lame the new medium as a venue for moneymaking

   Now these vastly different measures are in conference
   committee along with the rest of the telecommunications
   bill (in other areas of which, we remind readers once
   again, The Washington Post Co. has some interests). But the
   seeming clarity afforded by the House response to the Exon
   amendment and by Mr. Gingrich's appreciation of the need
   for untrammeled development of the new medium is nowhere to
   be seen. A letter from Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed,
   Phyllis Schlafly and other prominent spokesmen for the
   religious right is urging the conferees toward an
   Exon-style approach that's as destructive now as it ever
   was. The House bill also could end up including an
   amendment sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde that adds some
   criminal liability to the transmission of obscene (but not
   "indecent") images via the new technologies.

   The argument against "criminalizing" the transmission of
   "indecent" images via the Internet remains stark and
   simple, and it goes not to the awfulness of child
   pornography or even to the ability of parents to control
   what their children do on the computer (a wide variety of
   off-the-shelf technological filters now exist that let
   parents do this themselves) but to the impossibility of
   regulation by the electronic middleman industries that are

   Commercial providers such as America Online continue to
   pass along millions of messages a day, the interactive
   "newsgroups" unfold quickly and internationally, and the
   kind of central filtering envisioned by would-be regulators
   erases the very quality that makes the Internet a live and
   promising medium -- its inexpensive accessibility. If the
   Internet were like a telephone system, there would at least
   be the possibility of identifying a specific "sender" and
   "recipient." On the Internet it's "receivers" who do the
   selecting of what to look at and where. Giving those
   recipients the tools they need remains the way to go. The
   conferees should resist the urge to censor cyberspace.