Don't blame it on theInternet

Restricting the Net isn't going to preventanother Littleton tragedy
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The Independent Online

EMOTION IS divinely human. A birthright, it lifts us above thehumble beast even as, sometimes, it takes us much lower.

EMOTION IS divinely human. A birthright, it lifts us above thehumble beast even as, sometimes, it takes us much lower.

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

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

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

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

But that same senator last week proposedlegislation, in the wake of the Littleton, Colorado, schoolmassacre, that would ban certain types of information on the Internet. Mysenator, Diane Feinstein, said she was shocked to learn that Eric Harrisand Dylan Klebold had found the plans for their bombs on the Internet.

Itdoesn't matter that none of these bombs actually went off -fortunately, it appears that Internet bomb info isn't very good. Whatmatters is that almost everyone in America is upset about this event. Andpoliticians see opportunity in emotion - they like it when people rushblindly to an opinion without asking questions.

They like it because theycan curry favour without resorting to hard- to-come-by graces such asleadership or strong moral character. They just rush to stand at the nexus ofthe most popular opinion and, voila, popularity and campaigncontributions and votes are supposed to follow. No need for a keenintellect, careful weighing of the best and wisest course, just get aboutan inch in front of the stampeding herd and pretend you're leadingit.

So Senator Feinstein has pushed through a Bill that is likely to havean effect far outside the US. Her amendment to the Juvenile Justice Billbasically makes it illegal to make available information about bomb-making inany medium if there is suspicion that the information could be used for harmfulpurposes.

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

Under the CDA, you could have discussed, say, abortion inpublic, on the phone, over the airwaves or by fax, but the same wordsin an e-mail meant prison. One could easily see a world where each newmedium became encumbered with its own peculiar laws, depending on recentevents.

Imagine that world: no abortion talk on e-mail; nosuggestive photos on Palm Pilots; no Lady Chatterly's Lover in Windows2000.

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

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

And, Iguess, we just have to live with that proclivity. But information wantsto be free, and in a world of free inter-change, mistakes might notget very far before someone says, "Hey, wait a secondhere!"

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

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

So, SenatorFeinstein, let's blame the Internet. After all, it doesn'tvote.

cg@gulker.com

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