|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 10||December 21, 1996|
For the past couple of months, I have been corresponding with Bennett Haselton, the 18-year-old founder of Peacefire.org, which is a teen cyber-rights organizing project on the Web, www.peacefire.org. The average age of Peacefire's membership is 15. Bennett is a junior at Vanderbilt University, where he is majoring in computer science and math.
I met Bennett in cyberspace when he contacted me to ask what I thought about the IGC and NOW Web sites, www.igc.org and www.now.org, being blocked by CYBERsitter, a software program marketed by Solid Oak Software as a way to "protect" children from pornography on the Internet. Along with several other activists, I offered advice and encouragement to Bennett in drafting a letter of protest from representatives of the political and advocacy organizations whose Web sites were being blocked.
When company officials learned that Bennett had posted information critical of CYBERsitter on the Peacefire Web site, they responded to his communication by suggesting he "Get a Life" and "hang out at the mall with the other kids." When that didn't discourage him, Solid Oak Software blocked Peacefire's domain and threatened to sue him.
Bennett's experience is a good example of how activists can use the Internet for rapid mobilization around an issue.
After Bennett notified me that a story about his dilemma was published by HotWired, http://www.wired.lycos.com/news/technology/0,1282,34842,00.html. I posted an alert about his predicament to several discussion lists that focused on cyberspace censorship and cyber-rights issues. Not long after the alert went out, activists from all over the United States began sending E-mail letters of protest to Solid Oak Software CEO Brian Milburn, . The letters ran the gamut from politely-worded criticism to flames.
Meanwhile, Bennett contacted attorneys at the ACLU, www.aclu.org, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, www.epic.org, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org. Mike Godwin of EFF quickly assured Bennett that he would represent him in the event Solid Oak followed through with the threatened lawsuit. And Ann Beeson invited Peacefire to participate as a plaintiff in the ACLU's challenge to New York state's version of the Communications Decency Act.
Could this level of support have been mobilized as quickly without the Internet? Perhaps -- but it isn't likely. Free speech advocates rallied to the cause quickly because a community of people with an interest in the issue were already connected online through E-mail discussion and alert lists.
Free speech advocates are ahead of the curve on using the Internet for activism because they organized around the unsuccessful effort to defeat enactment of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) provision of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. But activists working on other issues are quickly catching up. E-mail discussion and alert lists are one of the most powerful tools available for mobilizing support. And as more people go online, it will become an even more important tool for organizing and outreach.
As for Bennett, who had just turned 18 when Solid Oak threatened to sue him, speaking out about CYBERsitter has been a lesson in real-world politics.
Bennett credits online news reports by Brock Meeks and Declan McCullough, and Jon Katz's article in Wired magazine on the rights of children in cyberspace, for sparking his interest in CYBERsitter and other blocking software programs.
"Our organization was not founded on the principle of attacking blocking software," he told me when I asked what he had learned from the experience. "We started out as some lame 'young people for freedom of speech on the Internet' type of thing, and even someone on fight-censorship (an online discussion list) referred to us as a 'junior EFF' once -- I think meaning it as a compliment."
When the CYBERsitter issue came up, Peacefire's members were asked to speak up if they didn't want to see the organization move in that direction.
"In the end," Bennett said, "when we discovered the kind of sites that were blocked by Cyber Patrol and CYBERsitter, most members were convinced that more should be said publicly against this type of software."
Thanks in large measure to Solid Oak's astonishingly belligerent response to this teen cyberspace activist, much more has been said.
The Institute for Global Communication (IGC) has teamed up with TRAC, the Transnational Resource and Action Center, to start an online project to monitor the activities of large corporations. The project is called Corporate Watch, www.corpwatch.org.
Corporate Watch is both a website and a text-based electronic conference, designed to provide activists, journalists, and policy makers with information and analysis on the social, ecological and economic impacts of transnational corporations. It also features an online magazine with articles on related issues. The site is accessible through any network affiliated with the Association for Progressive Communications.
Participants can also subscribe to an electronic mailing list to receive alerts about new topics on the site. To subscribe, send the following E-mail message to : subscribe corp-watchers.
The site's first feature focuses on the corporatization of the Internet. Entitled "The Battle for the Future of the Internet," it includes commentary from Hot Wired executive producer Gary Wolf, media and technology critic Jerry Mander, Brazilian Internet activist Carlos Afonso, and yours truly.
NetAction recently brought together a coalition of public interest groups to recommend that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) challenge industry and government decision makers to come up with innovative ways of expanding access to the Internet.
The recommendations were included in comments filed with the FCC on December 19 by the Utility Consumer's Action Network (UCAN), www.ucan.org, Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet), www.ctcnet.org, CHALK (Communities in Harmony Advocating for Learning and Kids), www.chalk.org, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), www.cpsr.org, and NetAction, www.netaction.org.
While recognizing the limits of FCC authority, the five organizations called upon the Commission to "go a step further" by challenging the technology industry to incorporate universal service policies into business decisions. They also encouraged the FCC to challenge other government agencies to implement policies, such as tax incentives, that encourage voluntary efforts by the industry.
The FCC's decision will broaden the customer base for technology products, but many of the new users will not have the ability to hire experts to help them install and learn new software and hardware products. In addition, cash-strapped public schools and libraries may find it difficult to make effective use of the discounted communications services that they will be eligible for because they won't have the necessary hardware, software, and technical support.
Technophobia is not an imaginary illness, according to Christine A. Mailloux of Blumenfeld & Cohen, www.technologylaw.com/. Christine and Glenn Manishin served as pro bono legal counsel for NetAction and the other organizations.
The groups are also recommending that the Commission challenge the computer industry to transform the current Net Day program into an ongoing industry practice to supplement the FCC's new policies.
Membership in NetAction supports continued publication of NetAction Notes, as well as a wide range of organizing and training activities. NetAction projects include helping grassroots organizations harness the power of the Internet as a tool for outreach and advocacy; helping activists who are already using the Internet do a more effective job of building a base of grassroots support for technology-based social and political issues; and promoting more widespread access to information technology by organizing hands-on demonstrations of the Internet.
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