|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 23||July 21, 1997|
Much of the debate about censorship in cyberspace has focused on governmental efforts to ban pornography, but governments are not the only threat to free speech on the Internet. Nor is pornography the only target. Controversial or unpopular political views also get attacked.
This was apparent last week when the Institute for Global Communication (IGC) was subjected to an organized, malicious attack by Internet vigilantes. IGC is a 10-year-old, San Francisco-based non-profit organization that provides Web hosting, e-mail access and other Internet services to activists working for peace, economic and social justice, human rights and environmental sustainability around the world.
The attack on IGC included "mailbombings" of a large volume of repetitive messages intended to overwhelm the computers handling e-mail, and "denial of service" assaults aimed at overwhelming IGC's connections to the Internet. The attack was aimed at forcing IGC to take down a site it hosted for the Euskal Herria Journal, a New York-based organization supporting Basque independence in Spain and France.
Unfortunately, the assault on IGC succeeded. Faced with the possibility of being unable to provide service to its 13,000 subscribers, IGC on Friday announced that it was suspending the site, under protest.
Ironically, the Euskal Herria Journal had established the Web site to promote better understanding of the Basque conflict and publish information that the international media ignored. The site contained articles on human rights, politics, language, and lawful Basque groups working for autonomy. But it also contained material sympathetic to Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), an armed independence group that has committed widely denounced political violence in Spain. The site also had numerous links to sites with views opposed to the ETA.
IGC came under attack because the organization provided a forum for proponents of a controversial political view, which is that the use of violence is an acceptable tactic to achieve political goals. While NetAction strongly opposes the use of violence to achieve political goals, we believe ETA has just as much right to express its views as organizations that promote non-violent tactics.
This is precisely what the principle of free speech is all about. Unfortunately, not everyone can separate the principle from the position. A surprising number of activists responded to NetAction's statement of support for IGC with impassioned arguments in support of censoring ETA.
Opposition to ETA's actions are understandable, but it's not necessary to embrace censorship in order to oppose the use of violence to achieve political goals. And censorship by cyberspace vigilantes is just as wrong and dangerous as censorship by government.
As IGC Program Coordinator Maureen Mason noted, "It's like vandalizing a
bookstore to protest a book." Statements in support of IGC should be
directed to Maureen Mason at
Although our presence on the Internet is growing, cyberspace can still be a lonely place for liberals and progressives.
I recently attended a forum hosted by Wired to promote the magazine's euphoric, and characteristically libertarian, vision of the future, described in great detail in the July issue in an article entitled "The Long Boom." According to Wired's rosy prediction, "We're facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world." Not surprisingly, Wired sees new technology as a key driver of this glorious future.
For those who prefer a dose of reality, I recommend Paul Starr's excellent critique of high-tech libertarianism, "Cyberpower and Freedom." As Starr notes in the opening paragraph, "In politics and the public imagination, computers have gone from symbolizing our vulnerability to embodying our possibilities."
Starr's article is in the July-August issue of The American Prospect, a bimonthly magazine of liberal ideas.
Another libertarian with a utopian vision of the future, John Parry Barlow, proclaimed at a recent event hosted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), that we will soon be living in a world where every single human being will be free to say whatever is on their mind.
Am I missing something? When did we put an end to hunger, poverty, racism, fascism and all the other assorted ills that have plagued human beings since the beginning of recorded history? When did the illiterate learn to read, and which zillionaire computer mogel gave them all computers and got them all online?
Again, for a more realistic discussion of the future, see Jeff Johnson's talk on "Universal Access to the Net," which he presented at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) SIGCHI'97 conference in March. Jeff is a member of NetAction's Advisory Board.
And, by the way, I also envision a better future. But it's going to take a lot of work -- and many sacrifices -- before my vision can become reality.
NetAction Notes is a free electronic newsletter, published by NetAction. NetAction is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and to educating the public, policy makers, and the media about technology policy issues.
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