cr#1292> From TIME: John Perry Barlow on censorship


Richard Moore

>From: "Craig A. Johnson" <•••@••.•••>
Date:          Mon, 8 Jan 1996

Since Elmer-DeWitt posted this on com-priv, I see no problem with posting it on
cyber rights.


------- Forwarded Message Follows -------
Date:          Mon, 8 Jan 1996 06:48:50 -0500
To:            •••@••.•••
From:          •••@••.••• (Philip Elmer-DeWitt)
Subject:       From TIME: John Perry Barlow on censorship

This is copyright material from the 1/15/96 issue of TIME, reposted by


By John Perry Barlow


An ex-cowboy and rock lyricist turned Internet activist takes on the
censors of cyberspace

Two weeks ago, a prosecutor in Munich managed, almost casually, to
strike a global blow against freedom of expression. Though he is a
person of such obscurity that most of the accounts I've read of this
incident didn't even mention his name, he has been able to constrict
the information flow for some 4 million people in 140 countries.

He did this merely by telling CompuServe, the world's second largest
online-service provider, that it was breaking Bavarian law by giving
Germans access to Usenet discussion groups believed to include
explicit sexuality. A strangely terrified CompuServe responded by
removing any newsgroups whose title contained the word sex, gay or
erotic, thus blocking access to all subscribers, not just those in
Germany. Given the centralized nature of its operations-and the
decentralized nature of Usenet-this was, according to CompuServe, the
only way it could comply.

Thus were CompuServe subscribers prevented from further discourse on
whatever they talk about in
(which may exceed even my high squeamishness threshold). At the same
time, however, they were also barred from alt.religion.sexuality (a
pretty chaste topic), (which redistributes wire-service
stories) and (the mind reels S).

Once again, the jackboots of the Industrial Era can be heard stomping
cluelessly around the Infobahn. In fact, the Germans did almost
nothing to stanch the flow of sexual materials. The newsgroups that
CompuServe removed are still active on millions of computers
worldwide. CompuServe subscribers in Bavaria or anywhere else can
simply switch to a less timid online service and re-enter the
discussion. As Internet pioneer John Gilmore once said, "The Net
interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

Such assaults are most likely to injure the large service providers,
sober institutions more culturally attuned to their governmental
attackers than the info-guerrillas of cyberspace. CompuServe, for its
cowardice in folding without a fight, probably deserves the calumny
heaped on it by angry users. The company says it hopes to reopen
access to all but its German subscribers as soon as it can figure out

But the issue at stake here is larger than whether the good people of
Munich can prevent others half a world away from looking at pictures
of sexually misused hamsters. These apparently trivial struggles may
in fact be the opening fissures of a historical discontinuity.

The real issue is control. The Internet is too widespread to be easily
dominated by any single government. By creating a seamless
global-economic zone, borderless and unregulatable, the Internet calls
into question the very idea of a nation-state. No wonder nation-states
are rushing to get their levers of control into cyberspace while less
than 1% of the world's population is online.

What the Net offers is the promise of a new social space, global and
antisovereign, within which anybody, anywhere can express to the rest
of humanity whatever he or she believes without fear. There is in
these new media a foreshadowing of the intellectual and economic
liberty that might undo all the authoritarian powers on earth.

That's why Germany, the People's Republic of China and the U.S. are
girding to fight the Net, using the popular distaste for prurience as
their longest lever. After all, who is willing to defend depictions of
sexual intercourse with children and animals? Moving through the U.S.
Congress right now is a telecommunications-reform bill that would
impose fines of as much as $100,000 for "indecency" in cyberspace.
Indecent (as opposed to obscene) material is clearly protected in
print by the First Amendment, and a large percentage of the printed
material currently available to Americans, whether it be James Joyce's
Ulysses or much of what's in Cosmopolitan magazine, could be called
indecent. As would my saying, right here, right now, that this bill is
full of shit.

Somehow Americans lost such protections in broadcast media, where
coarse language is strictly regulated. The bill would hold expression
on the Net to the same standards of purity, using far harsher criminal
sanctions-including jail terms-to enforce them. Moreover, it would
attempt to impose those standards on every human who communicates
electronically, whether in Memphis or Mongolia. Sounds crazy, but it's

If the U.S. succeeds in censoring the Net, it will be in a position to
achieve far more than smut reduction. Any system of control that can
stop us from writing dirty words online is a system that can control
our collective conversation in other, more important ways. If the
nation-states perfect such methods, they may own enough of the mind of
mankind to perpetuate themselves far beyond their usefulness.

If that sounds overstated to you, consider the millions of people one
prosecutor in Germany was able to mute with little more than an
implied threat.


John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist, cofounded the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil rights in
cyberspace. He lives in Wyoming and New York and at •••@••.•••.

Copyright 1996 Time Inc.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt
•••@••.••• TIME Magazine


 Posted by Richard K. Moore (•••@••.•••) Wexford, Ireland
 Materials may be reposted in their entirety for non-commercial use.