By Doc Searls
January 3, 1996 I'm a heavy Compuserve participant. I'm a sysop in its (excellent) Broadcast Professionals Forum, and I plug into it all over the world. By my lights, Compuserve is the most mature and useful of the on-line services. Ten years ago, Compuserve was already what Microsoft wished MSN could have been. Bill should have bought the damn thing.*

Now Compuserve is catching big heat for turning off about 200 newsgroups on its news server. These newsgroups belong to the alt.sex genus of cyblerlife, plus a few others that look equally salacious to Compuserve, German officials, or both. Some of the stuff in those groups is quite nasty. Much of it is harmless. A lot of it is stupid. It doesn't matter. German officials, like our own Congress, want to criminalize it.

So do many citizens. The current Telecommunications Bill, which would criminalize both production and consumption of pornographic material over the Internet, is the result of democracy at work. There is a widespread fear that unrestricted freedom on the Internet will eventually put "porn on the side of the bus" (to borrow the words of one Compuserve forum member). And Congress wants to give that fear the force of law.

But the Internet is not the side of a bus. It doesn't come in your mail box. It is not broadcast on TV (though it might as well be, considering the content of "Carnie" and "Geraldo"). If you want to find smut on the Internet, you have to look for it. This makes it very different from graffiti, from the Playboy Channel, from anything that is broadcast or distributed by traditional means.

Both our citizens and our governments are in error to think the Internet can be choked at a few source points, like TV networks, magazine publishers and book distributors. But the Internet is not a one-to-many medium. It is the ultimate many-to-many medium, and access to it is controlled almost entirely by its users. The choices are up to them. Looking at smut is elective.

When Compuserve denies access to alt.sex newsgroups on its own server, this does nothing to stop a curious user from finding those groups anyway. Compuserve's news server is just one among many. Compuserve members are like condo dwellers who live in a complex with its own shopping center. They can shop at home, but they can also leave town. Compuserve's own news server is just one magazine stand among thousands on the Internet. Thus Compuserve's "censoring" action amounted to nothing more than taking a few magazines off its own news stand. Those same magazines were still offered elsewhere. And Compuserve customers could easily still get them.

Illegalizing porn also won't work, because porn is even harder to stop than it is to define. Banning porn on the Internet is as futile as banning four-letter words on the phone system.

Everybody has different levels of sensitivity, and different definitions of what is offensive. The Internet accommodates all of those levels and definitions, because everything on it is concealed until one chooses to open it. Of course, we can create security schemes that make it harder for kids to look for porn, and give parents more "control," but none of these will thwart industrious kid, many of which are much smarter about all this than their parents and sh.

Besides, if a kid wants to buy porn today, he doesn't need to go to the Internet to find it. He can find it at just about any magazine stand or book store.

When my kids were young, a teacher told me "the most important thing you can teach your kid is values." It was the best advice I ever got as a parent.

What we need are not more laws that keep kids from doing things we don't want them to do, but more kids who don't want to do those things. This is a job for parents, families and communities. Not for governments.

There will always be arguments between those who want "freedom to" and those who want "freedom from." This may eventually split the Republican Party between Libertarians and Right-wing Christians — what former Gerald Ford speech writer Milton Friedman calls the "economic" and "moral" wings of the party.

The Internet will brook no such split, because it is built entirely on "freedom to" principles. That's why there is no way the "freedom from" forces can regulate the thing without wrecking it.

*In "How Apple Can Win," I argue that now Apple should buy it. [Back to *]

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