Previously published in the Los Angeles Times, Monday, December 19, 1994. Page B15
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Copyright (c) 1994 Douglas E. Welch
* Communications: We need to attack the message, not the modem, to ensure on-line services are free from censorship.
By Douglas E. Welch
As each new technology marches onto the scene, there are some who instantly blame all the ills of society on it. Groups calling for the censorship of computer networks are forgetting that it is not the technology that is causing the problem, but the people using the technology. Instead of targeting the authors of hate speech on the computer networks, they are targeting the networks themselves. This only reinforces the immediate need for on-line computer services to be protected by the federal government as "common carriers," like telephone utilities.
Hatemongers and bigots have always been a part of human society. Through ignorance and bullying, they gather their flock, but it is through open debate, education and reasoned discourse that they are best confronted. Instead, professed anti-hate groups are attacking the providers of on-line services in an effort to force them to remove offensive messages or prevent their posting. Rather than using the technology to fight back and denounce hate speech, they are seeking to remove the freedom of speech altogether. Were the situation reversed, I am sure you would hear them decrying the evils of censorship as loudly as they call for it now.
Telephone companies cannot be sued when offensive or illegal calls are placed through their systems. On-line services deserve the same kind of "common carrier" status. There is no reason on-line services should have to be both provider and policeman. This places them in danger of being a censor.
On-line users have several simpler options. They can merely ignore the message with the press of a key or set their "kill file" to ignore messages of certain content or from a certain user. Ultimately, on-line services provide users the chance to engage these hatemongers in a forum free of physical threat with hopes of liberating their narrow focus. The immediacy of posting a response can only be found in the on-line world.
On-line services are no passing fad. they are rapidly gaining popularity on par with telephone and fax service. We need to stop treating on-line services like something new and ensure that they are free from censorship pressures.
Censorship has always been defined as a "slipperly slope" that can easily lead to a repression of ideas and a lower quality of life. Whether we communicate via paper, phone lines or on-line computer services, our freedom of speech should be protected. Hate groups should be targeted for their messages, not how they send them.