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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.

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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.

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