Pornography As Pretext

The 1st Amendment is supposed to protect free speech, but the rights of the press are not necessarily extended to average citizens. Only when it is possible for each person to speak freely to an audience of significant size or importance does this amendment have considerable political consequences. The arrival of networking techniques that allow personal computers to distribute news and ideas to a massive audience places demands on the 1st Amendment.

For as long as radio and television have been distributed by a select few networks, corporations and media organizations have had a distinct advantage in reaching large audiences, an advantage that is threatened by the techniques mentioned above. It is no surprise, therefore, that the principle of free speech is in the process of revision in response to the new found ability of individuals to speak out.

One general ethic of Internet users has been that individuals are free to do as they please provided that they do not bother others. This ethic, however, has been dealt a blow by the recent telecommunications legislation which restricts what can be distributed over the Internet. The Communications Decency Act is an affront not only to the 100s of thousands of people who signed petitions against it, but also to the 1st amendment itself. Cloaked in the wholesome rhetoric of opposition to pornography and "smut," Senator Exon's morality quietly encroaches upon the rights of the individual broadcaster, an encroachment that works to the advantage of corporate content providers, many of whom would like to earn millions by transmitting the very same pornography that the new law purports to arrest.

But the bill itself is impotent in stopping the flow of pornography over the Internet, if only because the "obscenity" is not all originating from within the United States. Children--for whom the legislation was supposedly written--can still download the same sorts of things from Canada, Germany, or any other nation that participates in the Web but does not share our American penchant for censorship. To understand the rationale behind the bill one must look either to the political expediency of advocating family values, or to the insidious interests of the existing hierarchy of media communications, a power structure that has a great deal to lose if the current monopoly of the public's attention dissipates into a more egalitarian communication network.

Content providers such as Time Warner are currently doing everything they can to figure out how to exploit the new market of on-line network users. Since the user has more control, in theory, over what programs or services he downloads, the service provider must use new strategies to monopolize the attention of users. Instead of providing 300 stations or even 500, the Web provides almost as many options as there are users of the Web. This means that for the big "content" providers of today, such as CNN, to continue their hegemony in this new domain, they will have either to outperform or squelch out all forms of competition. One way to crush the competition is to foster legislation that makes it illegal for little producers to operate freely.

Another is to monopolize the channels by which users find content on the Internet. By providing simple interfaces that include biased search tools, the big ventures can insure that the majority of new Internet users will hardly imagine the existence of non-commercial messages, so marginalized will such content be on the ready-for-consumption menus of Microsoft, Viacom, and Time-Warner interactive. Thought control is the issue at hand. Without a sure means to connect with millions of people, the corporations that have come to rely upon the mass media for opinion formation could be threatened by distribution of sentiments and information that are not flattering to their corporate missions.

The strategy employed to regulate the independent has been to attack an aspect of independent production that is difficult to argue or endorse. The censorship issues are only a diversion, however, from the larger and more significant issues that concern the future of authority. Will, as today, authority be vested in multinational corporations, or will a democratization and pluralization occur (continue?) that allows individuals to compete on the same broadcast terrain as the big networks? These questions aren't settled. One thing is certain, however: the telcom legislation was not about pornography because it does not stop pornography. Any legislation imposed upon the people will be imposed to counteract the relative anarchy that has thrived there in the 80s and 90s.

No Health Care Reform: Smoking restrictions
No Media Equity: Censorship
No Jobs: Prisons

It is clear that quality of programming is not really served by recent legislative endeavors, which have seized, once again, the opportunity to restrict rather than to redistribute. The timing of Bill Moyer's How Do We Stop the Violence? conjures up an unpleasant irony. At the same moment that Moyer's fine documentary focuses on media violence, conservatives in congress are threatening to abolish institutions that offer alternatives to violent media programming. Both PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts are said to be unworthy of government funding. Yet each supports creative cultural programming that tends to be less violent, "obscene," and sensational than commercial media. In answer to the question "How do we stop the violence?", one might reasonably respond, "By cultivating non-violent sensibilities." Violence has proven itself to be valuable in terms of box office receipts and video game sales. PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts have important roles to play in providing programming that is judged to be valuable in principle. It has been suggested that no consensus exists concerning which art and which principles federal taxes should support. Nevertheless, if it can be agreed that violence in the media is a problem, it makes little sense to hack off a cultural limb that isn't holding a smoking gun.

Meanwhile, in what may be considered good news, local inititiatives are emerging to provide Internet access, and to promote the public service potential of new communication technology. In an effort to advance communication within communities, such projects involving electronic democracy hope to reassert the interests of the people through the involvement of the non-profit sector. There are a variety of civic networking projects under development.

© 1995   Andy Deck

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