Digital trial

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
23 August, 2016
Editorial: 24
Fecha de publicación original: 18 junio, 1996

Date of publication: 18/6/1996. Editorial 024

Sow thin, mow thin

The 12 June 1996 will be celebrated for a long time to come as a kind of birthday for Internet. The sentence handed down on that day by the court in Philadelphia which declared the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional, is not only the first judgement of this magnitude on the attempt of a government to censor the content of the net, but should also be required reading for internauts and digital illiterates alike. The three judges –Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, Judge Stewart Dalzell and Judge Ronald Buckwalter– belonged to the latter category when they were presented with the case against the so-called Clinton Law brought by a coalition of more than 50 organisations in defence of freedom of speech. In less than three months, the judges not only became experienced internauts, but also got to understand with astounding clarity the rules of the game and the complex framework of the virtual planet. Although the US government has already announced that it will appeal against the decision, they will, nevertheless, have to adhere to the “finding of facts” drawn up by the court in Philadelphia and on the basis of this decide whether to modify or accept the verdict.

In the midst of debate about the use of Internet, the sentence fell like a very powerful bombshell whose explosion will, undoubtedly, continue to reverberate through millions of computers for a long time to come. At a moment when the mantle of economics is threatening to envelop Internet like a shroud and cyberspace sharks are displaying their maws full of dollars, these judges have spotlighted the political and social implications of the net only to find there reasons for defending it. Without underestimating the commercial connotations of the Internet (how could they possibly commit such a sin in the US!) the judges centred their analysis on what they considered to be the greatest value of this system of communication and that is the creation of a place/forum where everybody can listen and talk to one another. The word is the great protagonist of this sentence, and not only because the case had freedom of expression as its objective. It was also because the judges discovered that the Internet brings to light democratic forms of communication and participation that don’t exist — either in form or in essence — in the real world.

Curiously enough, while on the one hand the sentence establishes the universal nature of the Internet, and the resultant difficulty in applying censorship to countries which do not belong to the US constitution (more than one person in the Defence Department must have shaken their head at the judges for that one), on the other hand, it recognises the benefits of this universality which allows for the extension of democratic rights beyond its own boundaries.

For the moment, it would be asking the impossible to recommend that our rulers read the Philadelphia sentence attentively. Possibly all they would conclude from it would be the conviction that this electronic net thing is a lot more serious than they had thought and that they should find more forceful ways and means of controlling it. This temptation will not be any less as a result of the meticulous “findings of fact” handed down by the US judges on the illegality and futility of such an attempt. Consequently, they will go back on the attack. As Herbert I. Schiller said on his recent visit to Barcelona, the big question on the future of Internet is whether there will be sufficient people within it prepared to defend its freedom. This affirmation is all the more valuable coming as it does from someone who, by his own confession, doesn’t use the net and who firmly believes that in the end the big corporations will control it. To him, affectionately, I also recommend the reading of the sentence, because in all the history of communication via the traditional media (both written and audio-visual), which he knows so well, there has never been such a meticulous political analysis of a new media. And never before has a new media compromised, to quite the same extent as the net does, the power structure that attempts to control it.

Translation: Bridget King.