'Net is no place for senators with narrow minds

June 23, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

Our politicians want to save us from our indecent selves. And, in this quest, they shall never rest.

One day it's violence/sex in movies they're protecting us from. The next day, or maybe it was the same day, it's rap music. (Urban trauma, by the way, is apparently OK, just not the music it spawns).

Now, it's cyberspace.

The 'Net -- where decent, God-fearing Americans, innocent of the dangers therein, often surf -- has turned into a cesspool. Like Quentin Tarantino movies, only worse. And nothing less than the future of our kids/country is at stake.

You see, if you know where to find it -- and, believe me, your 14-year-old, who can't get into R-rated movies, does know where -- you can download anything from snuff stories to pictures of naked women. All you need is a computer and a modem and the febrile mind of an adolescent.

What should we do?

The answer's clear. There's an election coming up (there's always an election coming up). And a 13-year-old girl recently responded to an invitation from somewhere out there in deep, deep cyberspace to come dance naked in the man's apartment. She hit the road and ended up a couple thousand miles away. The computer made her do it.

And so our senators, unmindful of the First Amendment and their duty to protect the Constitution, boldly voted 84-16 to fine people up to $100,000 or put them in jail for two years if they "knowingly make, or make available" obscene communications that someone under 18 happens to run across.

It's called the Communications Decency Act, apparently because "Computer Censorship Act" would have sounded too much like the truth.

There's a problem with obscenity. What you find obscene and what I find obscene may be two different things. For instance, I find the pandering that marked the passage of this bill to be obscene. On the other hand, there were judges who ruled for 20 years that "Ulysses," maybe the greatest novel ever written, was obscene. Who knows what is or isn't obscene on the Internet?

But our story has a happy ending. You'll never guess who the hero is. It's Newt Gingrich, our family-values speaker, who is also a Tofflerian futurist. Told you you'd never guess.

If there's anything we can be sure of about Newt, it's this: He digs computers. (Also, as a college student, he once fought for the right to print a picture of a naked woman in the school newspaper.)

The man is deeply into the superhighway. If Gingrich weren't so busy running the country, he would almost certainly be the kind of computer geek who spends 16 glassy-eyed hours camped in front of his Compudyne 486 DX-66.

He once proposed that we give each kid his or her own personal lap-top, but then realized that giving away computers to children while also cutting school lunches might be seen as slightly -- I don't know -- unfeeling, techno-wise.

So, he had to make a choice on this one. Apparently, it was easy. He took Cyber Values over Family Values. The sound you hear is Christian Coalition hearts breaking.

Speaking of the Senate bill, Gingrich said: "It is clearly a violation of free speech, and it's a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other."

It's hard to argue with that. Computer geeks can talk dirty to each other if they want to. Not that it does anything for me. I don't even own a computer. It may not even do anything for Gingrich.

But if Gingrich, who rules the House, opposes the bill, then it's as good as dead. That much is clear. Gingrich can make this choice because he apparently isn't really running for president, meaning he doesn't have to kowtow to those who see themselves as self-appointed guardians of American virtue.

I'm not sure about the virtues of the Internet. Neither is anybody else. What is obvious is that the technology is too vast and moves too quickly to know what it is. How do you censor something you can't even define?

But technology can also be our friend. Since there's a buck to be made, several companies are, even now, fast at work developing a system allowing parents to block cyber-smut from reaching cyber-kids.

Meanwhile, parents do have other options. Like actually paying attention to what their kids are doing, instead of leaving it to politicians.

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