politics

Hypermedia freedom

a reply to John Perry Barlow by richard barbrook

introduction

By passing the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, the two dominant parties in the USA have jointly agreed that the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing should be driven by market competition between large corporations. Recognising that massive economies of scale are needed for the construction of a national broadband network, the Democratic President and the Republican legislature have lifted most restrictions on the cross-ownership of media and telecommunications systems. In addition, further legislation is pending which will propose a dramatic extension of the rights of copyright owners to provide the legal structure for an electronic marketplace in information commodities. Quietly forgetting its New Deal aspirations for an information superhighway construction programme, the US government has now abdicated its strategic responsibilities to the private sector. But, this faith in market competition entails risks. In the near future, no nation will be able to compete within the global marketplace without a fibre-optic grid. Just as the building of railway, road, electricity, gas, telephone and water networks in the past laid the basis for modern urban living, the infobahn will provide the basic infrastructure for the next stage of capitalism. The fibre-optic grid will not only distribute entertainment and information, but also enable people to work collaboratively in almost every sector of production. Encouraged by funding from high tech corporations, the American political establishment is gambling that the construction of the National Information Infrastructure can be successfully carried out through the neo-liberal panaceas of deregulation and privatisation.

Given the history of the development of the PC and the Net, it seems more likely that the infobahn will emerge from the miscegenation of the public, private and community sectors. Yet, ironically, debate in the USA over the Telecommunications Reform Act hasn't been centred on whether or not unrestrained market competition between private companies is the only way to develop cyberspace. Instead, a fierce controversy has raged around an attempt to impose broadcasting-style content controls on the Net. Under the terms of the new Telecommunications Reform Act, online services cannot allow access to "pornography" or the use of the "seven dirty words" in any form. From being a largely unregulated form of communications, the Net has now suddenly come under the most restrictive form of censorship applied in the USA. Not surprisingly, there has been a storm of protest from the online community. Net sites were turned black, and blue ribbons have been attached to Web pages in protest against these restrictions on the freedom of speech. Legal actions are underway to test whether the regulations contravene the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. There are important issues at stake in this controversy. Parents are justified to be concerned about paedophiles using the Net to contact minors or distribute pornography. Children should be allowed to grow into puberty at their own pace and free from sexual violence. Yet, the restrictions in the Telecommunications Reform Act aren't simply concerned with clamping down on a small minority of child abusers. Under pressure from Christian fundamentalists, the two main political parties have passed a law which could potentially prevent the distribution of any form of sexual material - even among consenting adults. If this attempt at censorship succeeds, online services in the USA would only be able to provide content which conformed to the repressive mores of the American Puritan tradition.

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