As I was skimming Clari Net's news today, I saw a headline proclaiming that another round of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was being proposed in the House. Normally, this sort of news prompts me to rant about the absolute good of freedom of expression and access to information. Today, the headline inspired complete placid confidence.
Apparently the censors who want to muzzle the Internet have been in a cave somewhere preparing the wording of their bill, because the whole issue has been decided. On Friday 11 Sept 1998, the US Government distributed the most salacious document the Internet has seen in some time, without editing the content for minors or preventing them from viewing it via software.
I'm referring to Kenneth Starr's report to Congress recommending the impeachment of the President that is largely a blow by blow description of the alleged affair between President Clinton and Ms Lewinski. The report's details are shocking for a number of reasons, which I'm not going to comment on here. Despite the controversial content, the Congress of the United States felt that there was a valid reason to immediately communicate such content, and furthermore felt that the Internet was an appropriate medium to use. As a free speech advocate I could not be happier.
In a world where the CDA had been passed, the report would certainly have been delayed or edited before it was made available. Probably, the only access to the full report would have been the usual printing outlets, implying that interested parties would have to wait weeks to get the full documents, and pay considerably more for them. Delightfully, the Internet is free of draconian restrictions like the CDA, and with this precedent, will be for the foreseeable future.
Future framers of Internet-muzzling legislation will have to draft a law that would not only allow publication of the Starr report using the Internet, but would do so unquestionably. The report is undeniably explicit, yet Congress didn't review or edit the work before publication, nor did they make any attempts to prevent minors from retrieving it. Any future CDA must allow for the same speedy publication of important but sensitive material. I only wish Starr's office had closed the issue on picture content by including some pictures of the alleged lovebirds, er, smoking together.
The idea that only government could violate some future CDA is also untenable in a free society.
Today my hat's off to Kenneth Starr for his eloquent demonstration that a free society needs unrestrained communication channels.