The following essay was originally published in The College, Vol.1, No.1, Fall 1995, pp.8-9. Copyright College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Arlington. This document may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes, as long as the author's full name, title, original publication venue, and this copyright statement are attached.


by Susan Herring

Freedom of Speech or Freedom of Harassment?

If you've spent any time on the Internet over the years, you know that it is ideologically dominated by civil libertarians.

You know this because on the discussion lists you read, any suggestion that users shouldn't be allowed to post offensive messages is countered with indignant protests of censorship. Or perhaps you, like me, periodically receive mass e-mailings from such groups as the Electronic Frontier Foundation warning in impassioned terms of the threat to your constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech embodied in various pieces of proposed legislation, and urging you to contact your legislators, Internet service provider, etc. to register your protest using the form letter provided. More generally, you've encountered the pervasive hype that cyberspace is democratic, allowing users to freely and openly express their ideas, which are evaluated on their own merit, regardless of the race, gender, social class, physical appearance, etc. of the sender. Of course, some people abuse the system, but social control in the utopian world of cyberspace should ideally be self-regulated by individual users, rather than legislated by any authority. And in the case of particularly flagrant abusers, there are net vigilantes who take matters into their own hands by flaming, letter-bombing, or flooding the offender's e-mail address with messages, dispensing a rough and ready form of justice on the virtual frontier. According to this world view, individual freedom of expression is the highest good, and must be defended from government intervention and censorship at any cost.

Imagine the reaction on the Internet, then, when earlier this Spring a bill authored by Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska) to impose criminal penalties for originating "indecent, lewd, lascivious, or filthy" communication on electronic networks was passed without objection by the Senate Commerce Committee, then by the Senate in a vote of 84-16. The so-called Communications Decency Act, designed to target the transmission of pornography via electronic networks, was immediately denounced as unconstitutional by on-line civil libertarian groups, a "violation of the civil liberties of every present and future member of the online community". The American Civil Liberties Union defended pornography by stating that it is protected by the First Amendment; moreover it "contributes to the vibrant quality of online communications, and an increasing number of online subscribers." Others expressed skepticism that the motive behind the bill was pornography, instead portraying it as a mechanism for moral entrepreneurs to engage in witch hunts for "objectionable" or non-mainstream material. As a speaker at a recent conference I attended on Internet in the Classroom put it, "Congress is pointing out things about pornography, but that's not what they're really worried about. They're worried about kids having direct information about political developments in Chiapas before it comes out in the mainstream media..."

Underlying their paranoia, critics of the bill have some legitimate concerns. In the current conservative climate, the motives of politicians who propose legislation on moral grounds must be considered suspect. Indeed, Senator Exon and his fellow committee members apparently don't even use e-mail, so it is doubtful that their decision arose solely out of concern with the quality of life on the Internet. Further, the bill itself is seriously flawed, for example in failing to make the important distinction between consensual and non-consensual erotic exchanges.

Yet at the same time, there is a genuine issue here, an issue which has been all but buried under polarizing rhetoric, but which Internet users would do well to recognize. The fact is that the much touted "self-regulating democracy" of the Internet is discouragingly inhospitable to women, and part of the reason for this is the prevalence of just the kind of communication that the Senate Commerce Committee would like to censor. According to recent estimates, only about 10% of computer network users are women. Studies show that women are discouraged from spending time on-line by the high incidence of flaming (messages personally attacking other users), misogyny, and sexual harassment. Unsolicited sexual come-ons are regularly directed toward anyone using a female name, especially on interactive "chat" channels and in the recreational role-playing environments known as MUDs and MOOs. Flames directed at women in discussion groups often take on sexual and mysogynistic overtones as well. A May 1994 Mother Jones article reports that after apparently offending someone in an Internet newsgroup discussion, Stephanie Brail received an untraceable e-mail "bomb" containing hundreds of sexual and violent messages--the mildest of which was "Shut up, bitch." Other women have reported similar incidents; some refused to identify themselves for fear of on-line retaliation. To this list can be added cases of seduction under false pretenses, electronic stalking, and virtual rape.

Some women have called for action. "It's against the law to harass people on the phone, in person, or in the mail," says Brail. "Personally threatening e-mail messages should be against the law." Yet it is unlikely that U.S legislators had these concerns in mind when they proposed the Communications Decency Act, the most commonly-cited rationale for which is to protect children from exposure to on-line pornography. Protecting children is a legitimate concern, yet as opponents of the Exon bill have suggested, alternative means for parents to limit children's access may become available soon with the development of new interactive technologies. The problem of on-line harassment of women is more pervasive and more difficult to address, short of advising women to avoid computer networks altogether.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of male civil libertarian types have effectively advised just that. In the interest of preserving the right of men to express themselves freely, women and others who may be offended are advised to exercise their "free choice" not to listen. As one man posted to the Computer Underground Digest in response to complaints of misogyny from women subscribers, "If you can't stand the heat, ladies, get out of the kitchen." Such men insist that freedom of speech is "the freedom to say wrong or hateful things; ... to be meaningful, [it] must be allowed without any post-hoc punishment whatsoever." Women who suggest that harassing behaviors be modified or sanctioned are labelled pro-censorship and anti-democracy.

The fact of the matter is that absolute free speech on the Internet, while desirable in many respects, is not a simple or obvious good. How democratic, really, is a society where an aggressive minority intimidates and harasses large segments of the population into non-participation and silence? For that matter, only on the Internet do people seriously claim that any communication whatsoever should be permitted; in the "real" world, there are laws against slander and verbal harassment, and the distribution of pornography is controlled. Such laws are predicated on the notion that the common good must at times take precedence over individual freedom, especially when individuals engage in acts that harm others. Rather than viewing the Internet as a frontier of rugged individualism whose only law is "survival of the fittest", why can't we view it instead as a public commons, a shared resource whose users agree to abide by some limitations in order to ensure the continued availability of the resource to all?

Some have proposed such a view, and there is evidence that it may be gaining momentum, at least in certain academic circles. In the meantime, however, one thing is certain. If we continue uncritically promoting freedom of speech even when it means harassment, we should not be surprised when word leaks out and the off-line public forms an impression that the Internet is a dangerous place. Nor should it surprise us when government officials respond by taking action, however politically motivated or fuzzily conceived, to control it.

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