24 Hours of Democracy

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Democracy, Free Speech, and the Internet

by Iván Cavero Belaúnde

I've been following this debate for a while, even from as far as Perú, and I've been constantly astonished at the ease in which the debate has been framed in terms of "protecting the children."

Let's end that right now; there are two pieces of this law which are wrong: the part which makes it illegal to send "indecent" material to a minor, and the part which makes it illegal to publicly display anywhere where it may be accessible to a minor anything that is "patently offensive according to contemporary community standards" in terms of sex or excretory activities. I analyze those two parts in some detail (and justify the assertions below), but for the time being suffice it to say that the first one makes it illegal to send Allen Ginsberg's Howl to a seventeen-year-old high school senior, even at her request. The second one makes it illegal to post on a discussion group or a web page parts of, say, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. A law so crafted is wrong, it goes far beyond what's necessary for "protecting the children," it impinges on freedom of communication, it chills the conversation by its vagueness by making people wonder about what's "acceptable." It prevents people from speaking up.

But why do I, who am not an American and don't live there, care about this law? And why should you listen to me?

While I was growing up, Perú was governed by a military dictatorship; it brutalized and jailed its opponents; it chased people out of their country; it impoverished the people by decimating, expropriating and mismanaging the vast majority of the country's infrastructure; but most importantly, and as a necessary step to achieving its aims, it took absolute control of all communications media.

Control of communications is the common thread running through tyrannies in the world. Control of what one may or may not say, how it may be said, where it may be said. Open communications are essential components of democracy and freedom, for if a people cannot inform themselves of what's around them, if their picture of the world is circumscribed to what's acceptable to a censor, they cannot rule themselves effectively.

Thus, democracy and free speech are very dear to me. Having seen the flip side of the coin, I certainly don't wish it upon anyone. People should never be prevented from speaking up.

And what about America? As Carlos Fuentes once said, it has been both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to us. It has invaded us, toppled governments, imposed dictators. But it has also carried a banner of freedom and spread the once-heretical idea that people can govern themselves, and has that enabled that idea with others to support it - the concept of a free press and an informed and educated electorate.

Its ideas, brought out of the European Enlightenment, have been an inspiration to the people of the world, and helped usher in a new age, in which although there is still much misery and suffering in the world, the prospects for the future look brighter and the lot of the people is improving. It is those ideas that hold the imagination of the world, Mickey Mouse and Baywatch notwithstanding. It is a testament to the power of ideas that they have spread as far as wide as they have.

If the government of the United States, with one of the most solid records of respecting freedom of speech in the world, imposes such draconian measures on the medium that will become more important than all-pervasive television in the coming decades, what will the other governments of the world do?

If the people of America, who were among the first to enshrine limitations on the powers of government and wrest the keys from their masters, meekly accept the erosion of their freedoms under the guise of "protecting the children," what will the rest of the world do?

So today I, among other freedom-loving netizens throughout the world turn towards America and ask you to, hard as it may be, embrace your ideals. Do not reject your Jefferson, and accept governmental control over freedom of expression. Do not reject your Franklin, and trade liberty for security. Do not reject your heritage of more than 200 years.

For if you do, you give away a piece of your soul, the one that has served you so well, the one that, even in the face of some missteps, makes you unique in your own eyes and the eyes of the world.

For if you do, you will effectively initiate the hobbling of the many-to-many medium that presents a promise of energizing democracy, of breaking through the filters of a censor or an editor if you so desire, of having the wealth of the world's information at your fingertips. For learning; for research; for entertainment; and yes, for sex.

And if you do, our rulers certainly will as well, and as the new millenium opens, we will indeed have confirmation that the masters are still under control, and the people cannot be trusted with access to unfiltered information and making their own mind. And so much of what so many people have worked and died for will be for naught.

There they are in the air already, the cries of the censor, on a worldwide scale: China wants to seal up its infoborders. France wants to prevent people from reading Le Grand Secret. Germany wants to censor objectionable material in the Americas.

And they have a common thread: they want to do it for your own good. Notice that; notice the red flag, for it is the unmistakable indication of the government that wishes to restrict your thoughts and expression to "acceptable" ones. You cannot be trusted to make up your own mind what's good or not, the government must do it for you.

Do not follow in those footsteps; take a stand, and tell the world that the phrase "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" still means something in the country that first embraced it.

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