Propaganda in the Online Free Speech Campaign

Propaganda and Mass Communication

July 1, 1996

In February 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first revision of our country\'s
communications laws in 62 years. This historic event has been greeted with
primarily positive responses by most people and companies. Most of the
Telecommunications act sets out to transform the television, telephone, and
related industries by lowering regulatory barriers, and creating law that
corresponds with the current technology of today and tomorrow. One part of the
Telecommunications act, however, is designed to create regulatory barriers
within computer networks, and this has not been greeted with admirable
commentary. This one part is called the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and
it has been challenged in court from the moment it was passed into law. Many of
the opponents of the CDA have taken their messages to the Internet in order to
gain support for their cause, and a small number of these organizations claim
this fight as their only cause. Some of these
organizations are broad based civil liberties groups, some fight for freedom of
speech based on the first amendment, and other groups favor the lowering of laws
involving the use of encrypted data on computers. All of these groups, however,
speak out for free speech on the Internet, and all of these groups have utilized
the Internet to spread propaganda to further this common cause of online free
speech and opposition to the CDA.

Context in which the propaganda occurs

Five years ago, most people had never heard of the Internet, but today the
Internet is a term familiar to most people even if they are not exactly sure
about what the Internet is. Along with the concept of the Internet, it is
widely known that pornography and other adult related materials seem to be
readily available on the Internet, and this seems to be a problem with most
people. Indeed, it does not take long for even a novice Internet user to search
out adult materials such as photographs, short movies, text based stories and
live discussions, chat rooms, sexual aide advertisements, sound files, and even
live nude video. The completely novel and sudden appearance of the widely
accessible Internet combined with the previously existing issues associated with
adult materials has caused a great debate around the world about what should be
done. The major concern is that children will gain access to materials that
should be reserved only for adults. Additionally, there is concern that the
Internet is being used for illegal activities such as child pornography. In
response to the concerns of many people, the government enacted the
Communications Decency Act which attempts to curtail these problems by defining
what speech is unacceptable online and setting guidelines for fines and
prosecution of people or businesses found guilty of breaking this law. While
the goal of keeping children from gaining access to pornography is a noble one
that few would challenge, the problem is that the CDA has opened a can of worms
for the computer world. Proponents of the CDA claim that the CDA is necessary
because the Internet is so huge that the government is needed to help curb the
interaction of adult materials and children. Opponents of the CDA claim that
the wording of the CDA is so vague that, for example, an online discussion of
abortion would be illegal under the new law, and our first amendment rights
would therefore be pulled out from under us. Opponents also argue that Internet
censorship should be done at home by parents, not by the government, and that
things such as child pornography are illegal anyway, so there is no need to re-
state this in a new law. At this point, the battle lines have been drawn and
like everything else in society, everyone is headed into the courtroom to debate
it out. While this happens, the propagandists have set up shop on the Internet.
In terms of a debate about the first amendment and the restriction of free
speech, this current battle is nothing new. The debate over free speech has
been going on for as long as people have been around, and in America many great
court cases have been fought over free speech. The Internet\'s new and
adolescent status does not exclude it from problems. Just as all other forms of
mass communication have been tested in the realms of free speech and propaganda,
so will the Internet.

Identity of the propagandists

There are scores of online groups that work to promote free speech on the
Internet, but there are a few