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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 who stand out because of the scope of their

activities, their large presence on the Internet, and their apparently large

numbers of supporters. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is today one of

the most visual online players in the fight against the CDA, but was established

only in 1990 as a non-profit organization before the Internet started to gain

its status as a daily part of our lives. Mitchell D. Kapor, founder of Lotus

Development Corporation, along with his colleague John Perry Barlow, established

the EFF to “address social and legal issues arising from the impact on society

of the increasingly pervasive use of computers as a means of communication and

information distribution.” In addition, the EFF also notes that it “will

support litigation in the public interest to preserve, protect and extend First

Amendment rights within the realm of computing and telecommunications technology

.” Also in the press release that announced the formation of the EFF, Kapor

said, “It is becoming increasingly obvious that the rate of technology

advancement in communications is far outpacing the establishment of appropriate

cultural, legal and political frameworks to handle the issues that are arising.”

Clearly, the EFF is very up-front and open about its belief that the American

legal system is currently not equipped to handle the daily reliance and use of

computers in society, and that the EFF will facilitate in handling problems in

the area of litigation and computers. Initial funding of the EFF was provided in

part by a private contribution from Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple

Computer, and since then contributions have come from industry giants such as

AT&T, Microsoft, Netscape Communications, Apple Computer, IBM, Ziff-Davis

Publishing, Sun Microsystems, and the Newspaper Association of America. It is

likely that these companies see the need for assistance when the computer world

collides with the world of law, and also see the EFF as one way for the rights

of the computer industry and its customers to be upheld. A second player in the

area of online free speech protection is the Center for Democracy and Technology

(CDT). The CDT, founded in 1994, is less up-front about their history and

funding, but states that its mission is to, “develop public policies that

preserve and advance democratic values and constitutional civil liberties on the

Internet and other interactive communications media.” Like the EFF, the CDT is

located in Washington, DC, and is a non-profit group funded by, according to the

1996 annual report, “individuals, foundations, and a broad cross section of the

computer and communications industry.” A third major player in the online free

speech movement is The Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC, pronounced

“seek”). This is the group who filed the original lawsuit against the US

Department of Justice and Attorney General Janet Reno to overturn the CDA based

on, in part, the use of the word “indecent”. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are

a very diverse group, and include many who are also cited as contributors to the

EFF. Some of these plaintiffs include the American Booksellers Association, the

Freedom to Read Foundation, Apple Computer, Microsoft, America Online, the

Society of Professional Journalists, and Wired magazine. In their appeal to

gain new members, CIEC states that they are, “a coalition of Internet users,

businesses, non-profit organizations and civil liberties advocates formed to

challenge the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act because they

believe it violates their free speech rights and condemns the Internet to a

future of burdensome censorship and government intrusion.” Like the CDT, CIEC

does not directly state what organizations support their cause or how much money

is changing hands, but based on the companies supporting the lawsuit filed by

the CIEC, it is almost certain that the same computer and publishing related

companies are paying for CIEC’s existence. Finally, unlike other groups which

are activists for several causes, CIEC has the one and only mission of

challenging the CDA and does not claim to have any other purpose.

Ideology and purpose behind the campaign

There are several interrelated reasons motivating the online free speech

movement. The most visual, and therefore one of the most obvious, reasons for

the online presence of the free speech movement is to sign up new supporters.

Current technology of the Internet is ideal for gathering information from

people without inconveniencing them. While exploring the Internet in the privacy

of one’s own home, it takes only seconds to type in your name, address, and

other information so that it can be sent to the headquarters of an organization.

When compared to the traditional process of walking into a traditional

storefront, talking with a human, and then writing out your membership

information on paper, this new electronic method is superior. A person can

become an online free speech supporter at 2am while sitting in his or her

underwear and eating leftovers while sitting at home without having to worry

about talking to a pushy recruiter. Because of this ease of gathering

information, it is possible for

an organization to quickly recruit large numbers of members. Also, in terms of

the demographics of the members, the mere fact that they are signing up online

generates a certain, desirable demographic group of people. Even though

computers are becoming easier to use every day, the majority of Internet users

are educated and tend to have higher incomes than the average. At the head of

CIEC’s page where new members are encouraged to sign up, there is a large banner

proclaiming, “Over 47,000 Individual Internet Users Have Joined as of June 17,

1996!”. This particular technique of announcing the number of new recruits is

popular among various online organizations who recruit new members because it

lets the user know that he is not alone. The user will see the large number and

know that he or she will be part of a large group of supporters and therefore

feel safe about signing up with the cause. Once an individual gets “in the door”

of an online free speech website, he or she is encouraged to become a member or

supporter, but why are the supporters needed? I believe that when presented in

a legal setting, these large membership lists can be used to demonstrate that

numerous people do exist who are in favor of the online free speech campaign.

Just as people vote for laws or politicians, membership lists demonstrate that

people have “voted” for this cause. While a membership list is not quite as

powerful as an election, it does show that real “everyday” people support this

cause. When the online free speech campaign takes the CDA case to the Supreme

Court, it will be armed with long lists of people who support what these

organizations are trying to do, and the knowledge of all of the supporters could

be just enough to tilt the judges’ decision in the right direction. Another

purpose behind the online free speech campaigns is to attract more businesses to

the effort. When, for example, a software company who advertises on the Net

proclaims to be a supporter of the movement, then the movement gets free

advertising. When the names of computer companies such as Microsoft and Apple

are mentioned in the introductory and sign up information, other companies might

feel the urge to join because of the “me too” effect in which the smaller

companies look up to the bigger companies and might tend to adopt the policies

of the giants. For example, if YYZ Software knows that Microsoft is supporting

the free speech online movement, YYZ might feel important if it supports the

cause too. While the number company owners or managers browsing a site will be

much smaller than the number of individual people looking at the same site, this

idea of throwing around the name of famous companies is an attempt to attract at

least some supporters. Even though only a small number of supporters could be

gained through this channel, it is still a channel, and therefore important no

matter how small. Also, if this method happens to bring a large company into

the group, then the organization could gain great financial support. While it

is likely that all the Netscapes and IBMs of the world are already aware of the

online free speech movement, new companies and new fortunes are made frequently

in the fast moving world of the computer industry, so an unknown company today

could be a key player tomorrow. It is, therefore, important for the online free

speech movement to be constantly recruiting new companies, because the need for

large financial backers never ends, and you never know when a mom and pop

operation today will be the next Microsoft tomorrow.

Another motivation behind the campaign is the protection of businesses

and their interests. For example, a new online magazine for scientists in the

biomedical field is being formed, and the company behind the venture, Current

Science, is investing between $7.5 and $9 million in the project (Rothstein).

With money like this at risk, it is obvious that freedom of speech must be

secured in order for ventures like this to work. Finally, the ultimate goal for

all groups is the repeal of the CDA, but the deletion of the CDA does not mean

the end of free speech problems on the Internet, so these groups will always

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