Free-speech activists in cyberspace gird for virtual war


SAN FRANCISCO - Thirty years ago a student protest at the University of California over free speech sparked a worldwide chain reaction of youthful rebellion against authority. Is a new generation of free-speech agitators emerging now in cyberspace?

Ever since the Telecommunications Act was signed into law, many denizens of cyberspace have taken to the Internet to protest its censorship provisions. But whereas the free-speech militants of the '60s staged campus rallies, classroom boycotts and street demonstrations aimed at bringing life at universities to a halt, today's protesters have largely eschewed public action (apart from a rally at San Francisco's South Park in December) in favor of quieter but potentially far more subversive tactics on the Internet.

News reports have focused on the black backgrounds and blue ribbons posted on thousands of World Wide Web sites and on a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union which last month won a temporary injunction by a federal judge against enforcement of the law's ban against indecent material. Far more indicative of the passions and fears driving cyberspace agitators are individual spontaneous acts of civil disobedience now being suggested and tested out by activists to protect free speech on the Internet.

In language that reverberates with the moral fervor of the Berkeley protests, a cyber-protester whose screen name is Lizard compares the Telecommunications Act to a "virtual declaration of war (or a declaration of virtual war) by the U.S. government against the country's, and the world's, citizens." Lizard urges users to resist the act in the same way that "people fleeing before an invading army would kill their cattle, burn their homes and poison their wells to prevent the invaders from reaping any profit."

Biblical lewdness

Lizard offers a Web page of ways users can subvert the act, including forging electronic communications to and from President Clinton, posting lewd passages from the Bible and (if you happen to be a system administrator) blocking government-owned computers from any access to your site.

Another suggestion is that users scramble all their communications using publicly available PGP (pretty good privacy) encryption to frustrate would-be censors searching for indecent material. Finally, the page promotes the use of anonymous remailers, which make it almost impossible to trace E-mail messages back to their origin.

Nuessta Stubbs, in an essay entitled "Cyberspace Hashishim Declare Jihad," urges activists to view the battle over regulating the Internet as "a fight for your own body, your hypertext body, spread out over the globe. . . . You may not physically bleed from the attacks . . . but they are talking about putting us in prisons and straitjackets, cutting off our tongues, chopping off our hands, crippling us."

Stubbs calls for the establishment of underground networks, secret, encrypted, anonymous and riding upon the existing structure of the Internet. He (or she) compares the Internet to Vietnam, terrain in which the U.S. government will become ensnared if it tries to wage war there against guerrillas.

If the rhetoric seems hyperinflated compared to the threat, it's because the cyber-activists like their Free Speech Movement counterparts have broader concerns in mind.

In the mid-to-late 60s the campus radicals who flocked to the movement saw a George Wallace-led hard-hat constituency building in the country that was hostile to everything they stood for. In their view the Democratic presidency of Lyndon Johnson had so corrupted its political principles over Vietnam that it was powerless to check this constituency. Today cyber-activists see a political landscape with eerie similarities to the '60s: the rising power of Pat Buchanan and the religious right and a Democratic administration similarly willing to abandon free-speech principles in favor of political expediency.

They vote, too

To preserve the independence of the new cyberspace culture, many activists are urging the Internet's 20 million users to wield their clout at the ballot box.

"Sometimes the best we can do is yell and scream, and make symbolic gestures like the Paint the Web Black protest," advises the Voters Telecommunications Watch in its Weekly Bulletin. "If that's all you'll be able to accomplish at the moment, then you should do that. Other times, we can affect elections and votes, BTC as VTW has striven to do since we started in April of 1994."

In fact, Voters Telecommunications Watch warns its subscribers the risks of becoming too insular in their preoccupations. "Don't just write off the American political system as not worth the effort; whether or not you help, someone will get elected, and if you don't help, know that someone from the Christian Coalition will be out there, whispering bad Internet policy in the candidate's ear. . . . Only you can stop that from happening."

But cyberspace activists are ultimately more interested in being left alone than in manipulating electoral politics. Like their Free Speech Movement counterparts, they share a moral vision that is radically egalitarian and a utopian faith in the transformative powers of the new "global social space" they are building.

"We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth," writes John Perry Barlow in a "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace."

A former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Mr. Barlow urges cyberspace denizens to "declare our virtual selves immune to [government] sovereignty . . . even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will cultivate a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace . . . more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before."

Cyberspace radicals represent only a fringe group of the Internet's 20 million-plus users. But one thing is clear: The computer-dominated world of the '90s has produced its own generation of campus activists convinced that any restrictions on their freedom of expression will accelerate a slow slide to fascism in the real world.

Sandy Close is editor of Pacific News Service. Nick Montfort is a free-lance reporter and longtime denizen of the Internet.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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