Network: Blame it on the Internet

Restricting the Net isn't going to prevent another Littleton tragedy
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The Independent Culture
EMOTION IS divinely human. A birthright, it lifts us above the humble beast even as, sometimes, it takes us much lower.

This is really a column about the Internet, but give me a minute to get there. I'm mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it-anymore. I'm being really human just at the moment.

It all started with the American Revolution. We Americans got snooty about some of the business practices your ancestors were fond of. In particular, we didn't like your taxes - so we had a revolution, and now we tax ourselves. Progress.

We also decided to put some laws on the books about citizens having the right to bear arms, because you lot had tried to keep us and guns apart as a way of enforcing your rule. I truly wish you'd won on that issue.

Anyway, we got emotional about the tax thing, and we had a revolution. So, today in the US, some other folks got emotional, and there's more trouble headed your way. Look at Yugoslavia. We got mad at a bad guy there, so now we're bombing people and factories and refineries. One US senator stood up and said, no matter how bad the guy was we shouldn't be dropping bombs, some of which land on hospitals and buses and the refugees.

But that same senator last week proposed legislation, in the wake of the Littleton, Colorado, school massacre, that would ban certain types of information on the Internet. My senator, Diane Feinstein, said she was shocked to learn that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had found the plans for their bombs on the Internet.

It doesn't matter that none of these bombs actually went off - fortunately, it appears that Internet bomb info isn't very good. What matters is that almost everyone in America is upset about this event. And politicians see opportunity in emotion - they like it when people rush blindly to an opinion without asking questions.

They like it because they can curry favour without resorting to hard- to-come-by graces such as leadership or strong moral character. They just rush to stand at the nexus of the most popular opinion and, voila, popularity and campaign contributions and votes are supposed to follow. No need for a keen intellect, careful weighing of the best and wisest course, just get about an inch in front of the stampeding herd and pretend you're leading it.

So Senator Feinstein has pushed through a Bill that is likely to have an effect far outside the US. Her amendment to the Juvenile Justice Bill basically makes it illegal to make available information about bomb-making in any medium if there is suspicion that the information could be used for harmful purposes.

Well, now. What else does one do with a bomb? And, while the Bill covers most media, including print, it's being viewed as an attempt to reign in the Internet. For one thing, the amendment's co-sponsor is Senator Orrin Hatch, author of the Communications Decency Act. The CDA would have had the unique effect of making certain forms of speech illegal, depending on how you chose to express them.

Under the CDA, you could have discussed, say, abortion in public, on the phone, over the airwaves or by fax, but the same words in an e-mail meant prison. One could easily see a world where each new medium became encumbered with its own peculiar laws, depending on recent events.

Imagine that world: no abortion talk on e-mail; no suggestive photos on Palm Pilots; no Lady Chatterly's Lover in Windows 2000.

The other problem is that Senator Feinstein is behaving as if the US owns the Internet. Where do we in the US get off making practices in, say, Australia, illegal? Australians use the Net for distance learning in sparsely populated regions. If a US federal prosecutor stumbles across an online chemistry course at www.outback.ed.au, do we send in the marines?

Like a lot of Americans, I grew up during the Vietnam era, and that awful experience taught me the value of never blindly following anyone or anything. Governments are made of people and people make mistakes. Sometimes they make really big mistakes.

And, I guess, we just have to live with that proclivity. But information wants to be free, and in a world of free inter-change, mistakes might not get very far before someone says, "Hey, wait a second here!"

Restricting information on the Internet isn't going to prevent another Littleton. Frankly, in a country where guns are so inexpensive and easy to come by, I don't know how you can prevent another Littleton from happening. Our children, too, have the right to bear arms.

Given the awfulness of being a teenager, I marvel that there aren't more tragedies like Littleton. In my generation, acting out meant a bloody nose. Now, it means 15 dead.

So, Senator Feinstein, let's blame the Internet. After all, it doesn't vote.

cg@gulker.com

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