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From the July 11, 1997 ComputorEdge (Issue 1528)

By Jim Trageser

This is a column I've been meaning to write for awhile, but kept putting off because another Web site needed reviewing, another BBS deserved attention, another round of feedback from readers had sat too long without being aired. But a recent letter to the editor in ComputorEdge reminded me that there are some complete dolts out there on the Internet who are putting all of our freedoms at risk with their complete lack of any ties to reality and their annoying habit of claiming to speak for the entire online community.

They fancy themselves some kind of "cyber" warriors – anarchists building a brave new world. Like the Montana freemen, the more radical of these online crusaders reject any government authority and see the Internet not as a pretty darn useful tool but as some kind of holy grail, almost a religion.

The letter that sparked my ire was in the June 6 issue of ComputorEdge and claimed that anyone who thinks child pornography is a problem doesn't understand free speech or the Internet – that, indeed, those who share that concern or oppose software privacy are some kind of computer neophytes who don't deserve access to the Net.

Well, hell, I was poking around the Net way back when most of these cyber-nuts were still pulling the wings off bugs or torturing the family dog, and I'm as doctrinaire on the First Amendment as anyone – put me down next to Nat Hentoff and Mike Godwin on the free speech issue.

But no one with an ounce of common sense or humanity can feel anything but complete and utter hatred for child pornographers. To imply that child pornography is somehow defensible is to take a large, and probably permanent, step away from reality. Child pornography ruins the lives of little kids, screws them up forever. You want to defend pornagraphy created by consenting adults, you have my blessing. But you just don't hurt kids – and anyone who says otherwise is either stupid or sick, you pick.

The real reason Internet providers don't drop the child porngraphy newsgoups (I'm not even going to name them; if you're sick enough to want to find them you can feed your pathetic little habit on your own time) isn't because "there is no moral dilemma" regarding them. Nor is it because of some twisted devotion to free speech (even the most radical free-speechers tend to share the view that child pornographers ought to be beaten about the head and shoulders with large sticks). Rather, it's because of a legal principal known as "common carrier" status. First established by the phone companies, the "common carrier" principal holds that a company that simply provides access from one party to another with no interest in the content of any transaction can't be held legally liable for that content. Thus, if you and I make a drug deal over the telephone, Pacific Bell isn't at fault. Likewise, if an Internet provider limits itself to providing you a pipeline to the Internet without any limits, then no one can reasonably claim in court that the provider should have known you and I were dealing dope via e-mail.

While it seems eminently reasonable to simply refuse to "carry" the child pornography groups, once an ISP does so then it loses its immunity to content-based legal action. The way our laws are structured right now, it is economic suicide for any ISP to drop ANY newsfeed or block access to any Web site, no matter how morally degenerate or physically harmful such material might have been.

So is there no out? Is this an unanswerable conundrum?

I don't think so. Congress could pass – should pass – a law that would exempt ISPs from losing their "common carrier" status if they dropped any newsgroup that was, by name, dedicated to child pornography. That won't stop child porn on the Net, of course. They'll simply move it to another newsgroup – you can already find kiddie porn on some of the nudist newsgroups (against the vehement protest of the vast majority of participants on those groups). But at least we won't have portions of the Internet where child pornographers are made to feel welcome, where they're treated as normal.

The problem with the self-styled protectors of the Internet is that they give poltical cover to those who do want to see government control of the online world. I guarantee you that that letter in ComputorEdge is in some congressperson's files right now as "proof" that the online community is incapable of policing itself, that we need new laws to stop child pornography.

These cyber militias are no friends of the Internet – they are one of its worst enemies. While we're on the brink of a communications revolution that will make Guttenburg's press look like a children's hand stamp, these loons are running around like human fireballs at a munitions factory.

If those of us who are truly committed to free speech don't stand up in a very forceful, public manner and tell the world that these lunatics are, indeed, naked – both morally and intellectually -- we will see real censorship on the 'Net.

And once the government gets involved, it won't be just the child molestors who get shut down. We'll all suffer. And if anyone is fool enough to think the government simply CAN'T shut down the Internet or regulate it or do any other thing it wants, take a look at your last pay stub. You can't even stop the government from taking 25 percent or more of your own money, yet you're going to keep the government from taking back the Internet?

Government regulation of the Internet may be shortsighted and economically harmful, but what it is not is technologically impossible. Or even difficult.

That's the choice, gang. Regulate ourselves or let Uncle Sugar do it for us.