The terror of the digital illiterates

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
21 June, 2016
Editorial: 6
Fecha de publicación original: 13 febrero, 1996

[As you can see this page is in black, because the American government is trying to establish some kind of censorship in the Internet, using the Decency Act.]

Date of publication: 13/02/1996. Editorial 006.

Of one ill comes many

What happens to an aeroplane packed with passengers but piloted by someone who has never set foot in a cockpit before? This situation has been the theme of innumerable Hollywood thrillers and comedies such as “Airplane”. The latter must be one of Bill Clinton’s and a number of U.S. Congressmen’s favourite judging by the new law just passed on the issue of decency in the Internet (see the page of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility –CPSR– to find out more about this law and the attempt on the part of various human rights organisations to declare the Decency Communications Act unconstitutional). It now appears that precisely those who are not connected or who do not take advantage of the Internet, the electronically illiterate, want to control it and impose their censorship criteria on everyone else. It’s like a return of the “Moral Majority League” in the digital age.

They assure us that they are most concerned about material of a sexual nature that their children might have access to on the Net. Meanwhile, the powerful United States Parent Teachers’ Association has declared for the umpteenth time that they do not want their children to become “the poor of the Internet of the future.” They want to protect their children, but not at the cost of losing out on the many benefits, educational among others, that the Net offers. So, if the government is to determine the criteria for censorship, how are the limits to be established, by whom and in whose interests?

This question is as old as the birth of industrial society itself, when mass-education first became a reality. However, it takes on a different light when it is posed in the information society. As we all know, so-called (and rather inaccurately named) pornographic material is freely available and widely on display in kiosks and at book stores everywhere. It is almost certain that the august U.S. congressmen and their fervent followers were initiated in the art of self love accompanied by magnificent examples of what they now call indecent (a fact which did not stop them getting to rub shoulders with the founders of the fatherland). Despite their own experience, they are now treating their children the same way their parents did (parents who did not know exactly why they were doing what they did apart from their overwhelming fear of having to teach something that we all find out about sooner or later): by forbidding them to buy or page through magazines, films, books, etc. in which women (above all) and men, display or demonstrate those things that we all display or demonstrate in certain circumstances.

While we can forbid minors from accessing this material (whether they obey that prohibition or not), the fact remains that the world continues to exist. In other words, the library is not closed to them. The only difference is that the latter will have less subscriptions for this kind of material. The same does not happen on the Internet. This material forms part of a flood of perfectly individualized bits that, when added up, results in a whole different to each and every one of its parts. Any type of censorship which once focussed its rage on particular products, would now have to vent its fury on vast areas of knowledge and information because the net interconnects them and presents them as an interdisciplinary body of work in a manner incomprehensible in any other “media”. And this entire body of information is available to the user within seconds.

The second problem is: what territory this censorship will operate in. We already know what the Internet has done to the territoriality of the State. If something is censored in the U.SA, it can be published immediately in other parts of the world, putting it within everyone else’s reach, including those who have been censored. What can Clinton do? Call in the Marines and have them search, find and destroy enemy computers wherever they may be? Luckily, for the moment anyway, this possibility has to be discounted. However, what is in play is not, unfortunately, very encouraging: the FBI and the CIA have spent over a year of talks with European police trying to establish some degree of co-operation in the patrolling of the nets (it would be more reassuring if we were told publicly what the policy of Europol in this area will be, although, without being evil-minded it is not hard to imagine). In other words the crime is even greater: digital illiterates want to be just that on a global scale and they are working to impose their censorship criteria all over the world.

Who are the allies in this strategy? The White House, the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, in other words the United States government, the European states (it is now Germany’s turn to take the helm) China and the dictatorships and fundamentalist Arab governments, namely the most reactionary and retrograde forces on this planet. Those that hold the most unbroken records of service to their permanent intent to control the privacy of individuals, cutting back on civil rights, and snooping into the private lives of individuals to serve their political ends, or if this is not possible, at least using the information for economic purposes ….. after all this is capitalism.

So we are not dealing with just a question of censorship of pornography here. What Internet represents to these states is the right of individuals to exercise a power which hitherto they have been denied. They can now obtain knowledge which has remained locked up in a number of dominant languages, or in economic, religious, social or other differences; knowledge that was rooted in a hierarchical territoriality and based on the exercise of power over physical bodies, which now falls away because of the mental intercommunication and the universal instantaneousness offered by the Net. The possibility of individuals communicating freely among themselves is becoming a reality on the Internet, something which has terrified the State for centuries. Its reaction to this possibility has been extremely well-documented throughout history: it deploys that very same fear against its own citizens. This is the crisis point of the digital society today, whose formal framework we already know, but which is now imbued with new elements: on the one hand, the State’s attempt to control the content of communication within the net (to which end they will use a wide repertoire of smokescreens: pornography, State security, organized crime, etc.) and, on the other, the defence of this newly acquired freedom of expression which makes us citizens of this new city that is cyberspace.

Translation: Bridget King


I recommend that readers of **visit the pages of the US Union of Civil Liberties –ACLU–, Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Foundation of the Electronic Frontier for more information on this subject.