The New York Times, January 2, 1996, p. A15.
Unmuzzling the Internet [OpEd]
How to evade the censors and make a statement, too.
By Jaron Lanier (Visiting scholar at the Columbia
University department of computer science.)
If President Clinton signs the telecommunications bill
drastically restricting private as well as public speech on
the Internet, he can expect a rollicking cat-and-mouse
It can be comical when politicians try to control something
they do not understand. Such is the case with the bill's
censorship provision, which not only outlaws the
transmission of material over the Internet that would be
allowed in most newspapers, but also makes owners of
computers on a network liable for the speech of others. (As
Compuserve demonstrated last week when, to satisfy a German
court, it blocked American subscribers' access to sexually
explicit material, regulation of the Internet can threaten
both commercial and constitutional freedoms.)
The other day, I came up with a way to easily evade the
proposed American restrictions. My simple idea would be to
create a computer program, dubbed "Unmuzzle," which would
deposit incomprehensible fragments of any forbidden
material in different foreign computers (though maybe not
Germany's). The contraband communication would only be
reassembled into a coherent whole when downloaded in the
home of the user back in the United States, where it would
become protected speech, as in any other medium.
I had no intention of actually building "Unmuzzle," but I
mentioned the notion in E-mail to a friend, and within days
I was hearing from people I didn't know who were busy
creating the program with the idea of distributing it
freely. Fine with me. Such a program would make an mportant
Speaking as someone who has been involved with computers
for most of my life (I coined the phrase "virtual reality"
in the early 1980's and created much of the technology for
it), I find that many Internet users have been reacting to
attacks on freedom in cyberspace by slumping into a
separatist, angry mood. They feel that they are being
denied the rights that others enjoy.
On the Internet, separatism is expressed by encryption: an
encrypted message can be read only by the party it is
intended for. Therefore, in the spirit of the First
Amendment, I suggest Unmuzzle as an alternative method: it
may break up images or text into a hundred pieces, but they
are still accessible to the public.
The idea of censoring the Internet should be unthinkable,
especially in the United States. Aside from the question of
free speech, there's the economic imperative as well. The
Internet is not a plaything: it is the infrastructure of
our information technology industry.
The young have the most to lose from the new restrictions,
in spite of the fact that such limits are purportedly meant
to protect them. Schools and libraries will find it
extremely difficult to offer vital Internet services in the
face of a mine field of criminal liabilities.
It is members of Congress and the President who need to
show some maturity, by rejecting free-speech restrictions
in the telecommunications bill.
Posted here by permission of the New York Times.
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