Senseless attempts at Censorship

Saturday, 10 February 1996

Some of the most extraordinarily stupid decisions have been taken by those who have not understood what they have been dealing with...

THERE'S the story of the idiot who went to his doctor and asked to be castrated because he had been told that it would improve his sex life.

"Preposterous," said the doctor. "Where on earth did you get that idea from?" But the idiot was adamant. The doctor, deciding that he was acting in the best interests of the human race, arranged for a surgeon to perform the operation.

Some weeks later, the idiot was sitting in a bar and overheard a snippet of conversation: "Yes, ever since I was circumcised, my sex life has improved tremendously."

"Circumcised!" exclaimed the idiot. "That's the word I was looking for!"

Then there was United States Lt. Col. Oliver North, who, when trying to destroy the evidence of his involvement in the illegal funding of Contra terrorists in Nicaragua by arms sales to Iran, printed out documents from computer systems, and then shredded them.

Needless to say, the original files remained on the computer systems to be later used as evidence.

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Bill Clinton was equally dim this week when he signed into law a Telecommunications Deregulation act which aims to censor the transmission of "indecent" material over computer networks.

The immediate target of this legislation is the Internet. Anyone found transmitting sexually explicit and other material considered to be indecent to those under 18 may be faced with a $250 000 fine and up to two years in jail.

There are several groups within the US that are challenging this legislation on the grounds that it violates their Bill of Rights. They are right. It does.

But that's not why trying to censor the Internet is stupid. What matters is that the Internet is not governed by geography.

This is a particularly difficult concept for those of us who have grown up in regimented societies like South Africa.

We've been taught over the years that governments are able to regulate what we see and hear.

If we wanted to see pornography, read The Satanic Verses, or see topless sunbathers, we had to cross the border. Those who chose to stay within the territorial boundaries of white South Africa could feel protected from such influences.

Cyberspace, on the other hand, is everywhere. As I write this column from the United States, I am connected to the Natal Newspapers computer network by passing through 14 different systems and three countries. Where do these words exist?

If I type the word "breast", which is one of the words considered to be indecent by the new legislation, have I broken the law?

German author Michael Ende, writing The Neverending Story, describes the quest of a child hero who seeks the boundaries of the world of "Fantasia", a land of endless wonder and fantasy.

When he is about to give up his quest, he encounters his enemy, a creature that seeks the destruction of Fantasia. "Foolish boy," the creature tells him. "Fantasia exists in the hopes and dreams of humans. So it has no boundaries."

Cyberspace is that way. It opens up accessibility to any information that anyone wishes to share. The only control that exists comes from those who decide whether or not they wish to receive that information.

Almost all areas in Europe and Japan have access to the Internet. South Africa and India are among third world countries that are experiencing geometric growth in their numbers of users.

If the US closes its official Internet doors to these countries, US citizens will still be able to connect to the rest of the world's services through telephone lines. Archives of information that currently exist within the US will move to other countries. Shadow networks will emerge and flourish.

And Bill Clinton will realise that in spite of his new law, children will still be able to see pornography on their computers.

Along with other material considered to be "indecent" under the new legislation, such as Michaelangelo's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible.