Rep. Anna Eshoo on Net Censorship (EFFector Online Excerpt)


Craig A. Johnson

The following is an excerpt from EFF's online bulletin EFFector,
Friday 5 January 1996.  (Subscription and other information is at
the end of the post.)

Anna Eshoo is a conference committee member who is deeply concerned 
about the throttling of the Net which may result from the censorship provision 
in the draft telecom conference bill.

She told me that the "indecency" provision was something that
deserved much discussion and debate, even a bill all by itself.  She
was noticeably perturbed that the House conference leadership crammed
the Hyde proposal down conferees' throats without informative debate
or airing of members' concerns on the issues.  

Please note her comment on the role of the Christian Coalition in
which asked its members to call, fax, and write to conferees, 'and
urge them to support the only proposal that gets tough on porn, the
Hyde proposal.'  Representative Eshoo comments appropriately, "...if
members of the Christian Coalition wish to stay on a strictly family
friendly diet of reading material, it is their privilege and anyone
else's.  They shouldn't be able to impose their ideological and moral
standards on others or get Washington to do their bidding for them."


Date sent:        Fri, 5 Jan 1996 22:57:10 -0800
Subject:          EFFector Online 09.01: EFF & Rep. Anna Eshoo on Censorship 
From:             •••@••.•••
Send reply to:    •••@••.•••
Organization:     Electronic Frontier Foundation

From: US Rep. Anna Eshoo (•••@••.•••)
Subject: Guest editorial: "Nanny on the Net", by Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA)

Despite all the talk about "getting government off our backs," some
conservatives are now trying to have it intrude in our private lives.
Ironically, they are using the Internet itself to promote censorship of the
Information Superhighway and encourage Congress to turn the federal
government into an online nanny.

On November 30, 1995, the Christian Coalition posted an "Action Alert"
on its home page urging its supporters to call, fax, and send letters to
"the House and Senate members who will decide whether or not kids will
continue to get easy access to hard core porn" on the Internet "and urge
them to support the only proposal that gets tough on porn, the Hyde

As one of the House members appointed to the Telecommunications
Reform Conference Committee, I'm very familiar with Rep. Hyde's
legislation.  He wants to establish a penalty of two years in prison and
up to $100,000 in fines for anyone sending "indecent" material on the
Internet.  In addition, he seeks to hold online services--like
CompuServe--and their users criminally liable for the content that is
transmitted by such services, even in areas of these services beyond
their control.  Yes, his provision gets tough on pornography.  But it also
trashes the Constitution in the process and curbs free speech in the
United States.

First, the "indecency" standard is so vague that it creates an
unprecedented criminal situation in which people and organizations will
be violating the law for private expressions that are in no sense
pornographic.  Great works of literature like Ulysses or Catcher In The
Rye could be banned from the Net, as could individual conversations that
include profane comments or deal with mature topics that may be
considered unsuitable for children.  This is the cyberspace equivalent of
book burning and should be rejected outright.

Second, if members of the Christian Coalition wish to stay on a strictly
family friendly diet of reading material, it is their privilege and anyone
else's.  They shouldn't be able to impose their ideological and moral
standards on others or get Washington to do their bidding for them.  The
Hyde proposal opens the door for the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) to engage in broad-based regulation of the Internet.  It
would place the federal government in the position of reviewing private
communications between individuals.  We don't let the Postal Service
read our letters, and we shouldn't let the FCC screen our e-mail either.

Third, high technology businesses are vulnerable to lawsuits or criminal
prosecution under the Hyde proposal.  For example, Netscape provides
customers with "browsing" software that enables them to jump from
network to network over the World Wide Web.  The company's
executives have no control over where their customers go, but under
the Hyde plan, they can get thrown in prison if people wander in the
wrong direction.  That makes as much sense as arresting a telephone
operator because someone makes an obscene phone call.
Fourth, successful U.S. government censorship of the Net is a doubtful
proposition.  The Internet is not an American government network, nor is
it a network solely owned or controlled by American companies.
Because the Net is a private, global network, it's unlikely that censorship
by a government agency will accomplish the goals set out by proponents
of federal intrusion.

To get a glimpse of government nannies in action, one need look no
further than the recent decision by CompuServe to block subscriber
access to more than 200 computer discussion groups and picture data
bases.  The online company was ordered to take this drastic action by a
prosecutor in Germany who said the material in question violates German
pornography laws and other prohibitions against explicit materials
deemed harmful to minors and adults.

On the day that they were banned, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
posted a list of these newsgroups on its home page.   Among the items
that CompuServe is being forced to hide from its four million users are
serious discussions about Internet censorship legislation pending in
Congress, thoughtful postings about human rights and marriage, and a
support group for gay and lesbian youth.  Banning this material doesn't
protect minors and adults--but it does have a chilling effect on political
and social discussion in a free society.

The German experience should serve as a warning to Congress about
the consequences of online censorship and government intrusion in our
lives.  If the Christian Coalition and its conservative allies really want to
help parents stop their children from reading objectionable material, they
should encourage the use of software developed by private companies
that will give them the power to determine what is accessible on their
computers.  According to the Interactive Working Group, America Online
and Prodigy offer technologies that allow parents to block their children's
access to certain online forums where they might find inappropriate
materials.  Further, a variety of software developers have produced
parental control features for home PCs, while schools and businesses
have the ability to block specific sites from access by underage Internet

If ever a piece of legislation deserved to be deleted from a democratic
political system, the Hyde proposal is it.  While the problem of children
being exposed to pornography is a legitimate issue that society must
address in a responsible manner, control of the Internet belongs in the
hands of mom and dad, not Uncle Sam.
Anna Eshoo represents California's 14th Congressional District.


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