STATIC IN CYBERSPACE
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This article is reprinted with permission from the June 13, 1994 issue of The Nation magazine. (c) 1994 The Nation Company, Inc. Special offer to new subscribers: 24 weekly issues for just $13.95 (a savings of $40.05 off the newsstand price). Box CP, 72 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011. For more information, e-mail: [email protected] Jon Wiener, a contributing editor of The Nation, teaches history at the University of California, Irvine. STATIC IN CYBERSPACE Free Speech on the Internet JON WIENER At a time when Paramount Communications and Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation have achieved near-total domination over all hitherto existing media, many people have come to view the Internet--the computer network linking millions of users in a hundred countries--as a free space where critical and independent voices can communicate, liberated from the mainstream media's obsession with profits and hostility to the unpopular. It's "the most universal and indispensable network on the planet," The New York Times Magazine recently proclaimed, because, at a time when the "giant information empires own everything else," the Internet is "anarchic. But also democratic." Harper's Magazine joined the utopian talk: The Internet marks "not the beginning of authority but its end." Computer networks create "a country of decentralized nodes of governance and thought," in which "the non-dogmatic--the experimental idea" and "the global perspective" all work to undermine centralized power and official opinion. U.S. News & World Report declared in January that, on the Internet, "everyone has a virtually unlimited right to express and seek information on any subject." The "Net" is a free space, the argument continues, because no one controls it and no one owns it; it has no center. Instead, it has thousands of nodes, each of which permits those with access to a computer, a modem and a modest budget to send and receive messages and to read, copy and distribute documents, manifestoes, essays and exposs. No one is excluded because of race, ethnicity, creed or gender. And it's growing like kudzu: The Internet Society reported last year that 1.7 million host computers provided gateways for 17 million users to enter the Infobahn. Those who operate computer bulletin board systems ("bbs"), newsgroups and mailing lists are mainly volunteers working for free. According to Harley Hahn and Rick Stout, authors of The Internet Complete Reference, the Net provides "living proof that human beings who are able to communicate freely and conveniently will choose to be social and selfless." It all sounds great. But despite the claims made for the Net, its freedoms are restricted in familiar ways; it reproduces many problems and obstacles found outside cyberspace, in what the hackers disparagingly term "real life." The largest collection of news and discussion groups on the Net is Usenet, which involves millions of people reading and posting messages on more than 5,000 topics, ranging from "artificial intelligence" (comp.ai) to "Japanese animation" (rec.arts.anime). Usenet bulletin boards recently dramatized the power of the Internet as a weapon to fight government censorship. The Canadian government has been trying to prevent Canadians from learning about the sensational sex-torture-murder trial of Karla Homolka and her husband/accomplice, Paul Bernardo. Homolka pleaded guilty in July 1993 after confessing gruesome details of two murders and naming her husband as the instigator. The Ontario court imposed a gag order on the media, seeking to prevent potential jurors in her husband's separate trial from learning about the case. None of the Canadian media challenged the ban, but industrious computer networkers in Toronto set up a Usenet newsgroup, alt.fan.karla-homolka, on which they posted daily news of the trial. (Putting it in the "alternative-fan" area was a macabre touch.) Then "the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) showed up in the newsgroup and said we were all going to jail," recalled Joel Furr, a Usenet moderator responsible for editing messages on some bulletin boards. "They said they were recording our names and contacting our site administrators." Most Canadian institutions on the Net, including all universities, shut down local access to the bulletin board. Undeterred, the hackers started a new one, "alt.pub-ban.homolka," on which they continued to post news of the trial. "It took the R.C.M.P. about a month to find that hiding place," Furr said. When that one was shut down, they started posting Karla Homolka information on still other bulletin boards. The gag order remains in effect, since jury selection in Bernardo's trial won't begin until fall. But as a result of the postings on computer bulletin boards, Stephen Kimber wrote in the Halifax Daily News, "the ban has become a joke." Global communications systems "are now beyond the short arms of narrow-minded Ontario judicial regulators." Kimber, a journalism professor at the University of King's College in Halifax, got the banned information "through an electronic labyrinth from a double-blind anonymous posting service based, I believe, in Finland--a service often used by those who discreetly post adult personal classified messages on the Internet." Every effort by court authorities to prevent trial news from reaching the public "has simply led individuals to find more innovative ways to distribute it." (I got the grisly story by e-mail from a gentleman in Texas with the address [email protected] A lot of what was posted included rumors, hearsay and people indulging their taste for bizarre news, which is an inevitable consequence of such an open forum.) When Wired magazine did a short piece on the story in its April issue, the Canadian government banned the issue and confiscated copies from distributors. Wired fought back in cyberspace, making the text of the banned article available on the Internet through their own "infobot"--a software program that provides information on demand--and on networks accessible to any Canadian with a modem. Fighting the Mounties presents the Net at its best, and shows how people could obtain other more significant information their governments might want to keep secret. But the same strategy for resisting government authority is available to more malevolent forces. A news item on the "SN GrapeVine" bulletin board, datelined Munich and headlined "Nazis Online," reports that German neo-Nazis have established their own bulletin boards on which users can "exchange ideas on how to rid Germany of foreigners, coordinate illegal rallies and swap bomb-making recipes." The "Thule Network," named after a 1920s proto-Nazi group, consists of a dozen bulletin boards in three states, access to which is protected by passwords. Neo-Nazis are using the network to avoid detection by police who are not yet familiar with the new technology. For everyone from neo-Nazis to anti-censorship activists, cyberspace does indeed provide a free space. But how free is the speech on the Internet? Most of the Usenet bulletin boards are completely open to anyone with any message--a rich information anarchy, limited only by self-regulation, that can't be found in any other medium. But this utopian ideal is abandoned in bulletin boards that are "moderated" by volunteer system operators who have the power to edit or refuse to post messages they consider irrelevant or objectionable. To see what an unmoderated bulletin board looks like, I checked the Usenet Bosnia discussion group (soc.culture.bosnaherzgvna). The first posting read, "Serbs in world wars? O yes, I remember.... Russians come and liberated Belgrade. Serbs were so grateful that they did not mind, let say, missbehaviour of Russian soldiers towards local women. Or was raping a kind of a sign of frendship." It was signed by Damir Sokcevic, Department for Theoretical Physics, Rudjer Boskovic Institute, Zagreb, Croatia. The next message read, "Why should we let you `holy Armenian crooks' get away with the Muslim Holocaust's cover-up?... The ex-Soviet Armenian government got away with the genocide of 2.5 million Muslim men, women and children and is enjoying the fruits of that genocide." It had been posted by "Serdar Argic." This is the ugly side of freedom of speech. Garbage postings like these can devastate regions of cyberspace. The Usenet discussion group soc.history "has been absolutely destroyed by Serdar Argic," Usenet moderator Joel Furr wrote in April on an internal news bulletin board. "Upon reading the group today, I found 200+ active articles, of which 175 were from Serdar Argic and 20 were complaining about him." That group has now been replaced by one with a moderator who censors Serdar Argic. (His 175 messages on soc.history were all different, but all had the same nutty theme: Turks didn't kill Armenians in 1915, it was the other way around.) I e-mailed Joel Furr for more details, and he replied with a startlingly archaic suggestion: I should telephone him, so we could "talk." On the phone, he explained that "`Serdar Argic' seems to be several people, anti-Armenian Turks, with software that scans bulletin boards for keywords and automatically generates responses out of a database of megabytes of messages. Several universities have kicked him off their networks, but he's currently got access through a firm called UUNet in Virginia. There's nothing we can do about him from a legal standpoint." Other Usenet groups have had problems with freedom of electronic speech: The "guns" discussion group (rec.guns), which is moderated, "flat out prohibits ANY discussion on gun control," reports Usenet moderator Cindy Tittle Moore, "because they know from experience that's just one long flame war." (To "flame" is to hurl abuse on-line.) If you are against guns, you are not allowed to tell it to the Usenet "guns" discussion group. And the gun nuts have virtually taken over the Mother Jones Usenet bulletin board (alt.motherjones), swamping it with pro-gun diatribes cross-listed from talk.politics.guns and alt.fan.rush-limbaugh. The energy of these people is astounding: The unmoderated group talk.politics.guns had 2,096 new postings in the week I checked-300 a day. The underlying problem, Furr says, is that "the Internet is expanding at logarithmic rates. A million new users will bring a few sociopaths. Until recently we had complete anarchy with selfregulation. Now some human will have to look at everything and decide what to post. It's unfortunate." But it's not necessarily censorship. The moderated bulletin board or newsgroup is edited like a magazine letters-to-the-editor page: Relevant material is posted, objectionable or useless or loony stuff is kept out. In this respect communication in cyberspace is closer to ordinary publishing than to a new realm of freedom. (On the other hand, the extent of communication possible is far richer and freer than in any letters page.) Commercial advertising presents a different threat to the freedom of the Internet. Attorney Laurence Canter of Phoenix showed how to do it: In April he placed an ad for his services as a "green card" immigration lawyer on Usenet--not just on bulletin boards where it might be relevant, like misc.legal and alt.visa.us, or the "business" area, but on every one of more than 5,000 discussion groups. It appeared on rec.arts.erotica and on the antiBarney alt.tv-dinosaurs.barney.die.die.die. This ambulance chasing on the information superhighway resulted in "a nuclear level flame," Furr said. The network was bombarded with thousands of protest messages from outraged users. Despite his violation of "netiquette," Canter is unrepentant; he told The New York Times, "We will definitely advertise on the Internet again." There's no good way to stop him. "These things that are written into the Internet culture are not written into the law," said James Gleick, who runs a commercial Internet gateway in Manhattan called the Pipeline. Usenet groups could be swamped with advertisements that would drown out noncommercial speech, and the rich discussion of common interests that now takes place would wither away. In real life, freedom of speech is also limited by libel laws. But is there libel in cyberspace? A federal court ruled in 1991 that CompuServe couldn't be sued for libel for a message it transmitted. That case (Cubby v. CompuServe) set a vital precedent for free speech in the electronic age: U.S. District Court Judge Peter Leisure of New York ruled that, since computer networks do not exercise editorial control over the messages they transmit, they are not liable for defamation. Individuals, however, are still responsible for their own words communicated through cyberspace. The first trial for libel by e-mail--held in Australia--concluded with a substantial fine being imposed on the offending e-mailer. In that case, an anthropologist fired by the University of Western Australia sued another anthropologist, claiming he had been defamed in a computer bulletin board message. The case went to the West Australian Supreme Court, which ruled in April that libel in cyberspace is actionable. David Rindos, who has a doctorate from Cornell University, was dismissed last June because of insufficient productivity. A supporter of Rindos posted news of the firing on the DIALx science anthropology international computer bulletin board; many colleagues e-mailed their support for him, but Gil Hardwick, an anthropologist working in the field in Western Australia, posted a message criticizing Rindos. According to Justice David Ipp, it declared that Rindos's career was based not on academic achievement "but on his ability to berate and bully all and sundry." The message also contained "allegations of pedophilia," in the words of Rindos's lawyer, and falsely implied that sexual misconduct had some bearing on his firing by the university. Twenty-three thousand people around the world have access to the bulletin board on which Mr. Hardwick's message appeared, and most of them are professional anthropologists and anthropology students. "The defamation caused serious harm to Dr. Rindos's personal and professional reputation," Justice Ipp declared. "The publication of these remarks will make it more difficult for him to obtain appropriate employment.... The damages award must compensate him for all these matters and vindicate his reputation to the public." Although it's easier to win a libel case in Australia than in the United States, the same circumstances here would produce the same result, according to Martin Garbus, an attorney and a libel law authority. The Internet is not a free space when it comes to libel; it is subject to the same libel law as any publication. In the Australian case, the libelous message had been posted on a bulletin board available to thousands; but even individual email messages can cause legal problems. The day is not too distant when an e-mailer will find himself or herself in court, perhaps in an employment discrimination suit, for a statement uttered only in a single e-mail message. E-mail messages, like other written communications, are discoverable in legal proceedings, according to William Parker, director of the office of academic computing at the University of California, Irvine--they can be subpoenaed and presented as evidence in court. And that's only the beginning: It turns out that your old e-mail is not necessarily gone just because you deleted it. At my campus of the University of California, and probably at most universities as well as private corporations, backup copies of most e-mail messages are retained on tape as part of the nightly backup of the main computer. Ollie North was unable to destroy evidence of the Iran/contra cover-up because the White House maintained a backup copy of the e-mail system on which he had plotted his crimes. Erasing his hard drive and shredding his paper copies didn't help. Most e-mailers are as vulnerable today as North was. Parker's advice: "You should not say anything via e-mail that you would not say publicly." Those who see the Internet as a free space neglect another important limitation to that freedom: Cyberspace is still a male space. Despite the universal access and non-discrimination on the Internet, despite the fact that physical appearances and attributes are absent, the great majority of users are men, and women's voices tend to get drowned out in cyberspace. Even in feminist discussion groups, says Ellen Broidy, history bibliographer at the U Cal, Irvine, library, "two or three men will get on and dominate the conversation--either by being provocative, or by flooding the system with comments on everything. It's like talk radio, only worse." Cindy Tittle Moore, a moderator on Usenet's soc.feminism, says, "It should be mandatory for every male on the Net to seriously pretend being female for two weeks to see the difference." They will get sexually explicit invitations from other men, she says, "some polite, some gross." And the styles of disagreement are different. When a man disagrees with another man on a bulletin board, "he's likely to go for a point by point argument and pretty much stay on topic," Moore says. "With a female, he's likely to call her a bull-dyke bitch and leave it at that." Cyberspace, concludes Katherine Hayles, who teaches English at U.C.L.A., will not "free us from the straitjacket of physically marked categories such as race, class and gender." The Internet has demonstrated its effectiveness as a weapon against government censorship and as a means of communication untrammeled by corporate control. It makes available immense information resources on an unprecedented scale. It makes instantaneous communication easy, which could strengthen democracy. It's also fun. But it's not a new world of freedom, significantly different from our own; in terms of free speech and censorship, libel and defamation, gender and social hierarchies, not to mention advertising and commerce, the moral of this story seems to be, in cybertalk, "VR mirrors RL"--virtual reality hasn't escaped the bounds of real life.