Internet may become "Don't Talk About It At All" for gays

Commentary by Natalie Davis

Forget "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- if a controversial bill now in front of the Congress is enacted, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people could see the so-called information superhighway become "Don't Talk About It At All" Boulevard.

Thanks to a last-minute fight over language contained in the Exon Telecommunications Bill, the legislation, which includes the much-feared Communications Decency Act of 1995, has not achieved passage at press time. And the budget standoff, which has furloughed thousands of government workers, has so far kept the bill off of the congressional front burner. But it is only a matter of time before the House and the Senate again take up the matter of censoring what it considers "indecent" speech on computer bulletin boards, on-line services and the Internet. The bill, which was crafted by J. James Exon (D-Ne.), is allegedly designed to protect children from pornography in cyberspace. As currently written, the CDA aims to stop obscene, "indecent, lewd, lascivious, and filthy communications" on computer networks by making the creators and transmitters of such messages criminally liable for them. Penalties could range from up to two years imprisonment, confiscation of personal and corporate computer equipment and fines of up to $250,000.

In March, 1995, Senator Exon's legislation was linked to the Telecommunications Bill (which primarily addresses commerce issues dealing with computers, cable television and telephone companies). Almost immediately, activist groups, including some representing the gay community, took aim at the bill and its plan to censor Net speech. They had and have tough allies -- Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, and Reverend Louis P. Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition are among the many supporters of the CDA. But equally chilling to many is the fact that much of America, not knowing a great deal about the Internet, or what can and can't be found there, seems to have little problem with censoring Net communications if it will protect children.

The flaw with that notion becomes apparent with the recent CompuServe banning of a wide range of Usenet Newsgroups (on-line message forums). Because of German law, the international on-line service felt compelled to remove all newsgroups with "sex" or "gay" in their titles. This gets rid of a number of sexually explicit topics, to be sure, but it also wipes out informative forums that have nothing to do with prurient issues -- for example, newsgroups that cover gay-oriented political subjects, safer sex information, AIDS news and support areas. The service is reportedly trying to get the newsgroups back for its non-German clients.

Another instance involved another on-line service, America Online. This gay-positive service, in an effort to police itself in an effort to forestall congressional censorship, banned a number of "indecent" words, including the word "breast." The service was flooded with angry phone calls and e-mail letters. One, from a cancer support group, asked a sarcastic question: "What are we supposed to call them -- hooter cancer survivors?'" AOL admitted its error and backed down.

Bill Jahnel, a representative of AOL's Gay and Lesbian Community Forum, says the service tries to maintain "pristine" content to protect its young callers. "One cannot police for people coming into [cyberspace chat] areas. We can pull something when someone requests something obviously illegal, such as propositions to minors, or minors [seeking] sexual contact with adults," he explains. AOL provides a number of conferences specifically geared to teens so that they can talk amongst themselves and offer support and encouragement to one another.

It also offers special software to parents, so that they can keep adult materials on the network out of children's hands.

Software is available for parents to protect their kids from so-called smut on the Net and the World Wide Web, too. A number of Capitol Hill legislators have been largely unsuccessful in efforts to tone down the Exon bill so that instead of using censorship, parents would be encouraged to make use of technological safeguards to prevent children from bumping into porn (which, according to figures cited by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, only makes up about three percent of all of the material available on the Internet) while Net-surfing.

"It makes me wonder," says a local bulletin board systems operator, who requests anonymity on the grounds that publicity could get his board "targeted by the feds." "Is this about protecting kids or restricting unpopular speech? There's software to keep kids from porn, so maybe this is really about getting the pro-abortion and pro-gay and pro-drug legalization people to shut up or go to jail. Maybe it's about dumbing down the Net so that the masses won't hear controversial ideas. It sounds like Big Brother wants to control what we can say and see and hear."

Ms. Julian, who runs a computer mailing list for female-to-male transsexuals who identify as gay or bisexual men, agrees: "This country does not care about children -- witness its stand on abortion, women's rights and welfare. These people are simply disturbed by the idea of free communication [by those] who don't believe in their values."

Representatives of other gay and lesbian organizations fear for the possibilities should the bill win passage. Karen Wickre, the interim executive director of the San-Francisco-based Digital Queers says the effect will be chilling. "People will assume there's Big Brother watching from the get-go," she asserts. "It will reinforce the notion that some information, say, safe sex information that applies to gay and straight teenagers both, is X-rated. It will make education and resource-sharing all the more difficult, especially for kids who rely on going on-line to talk, share, learn and meet."

"Even AIDS education will be affected," says 'Netizen Sarah Chambers, "since we will be unable to explain the use of condoms in explicit enough language to reach all the people who need to be reached. We will be throttled as far as plain talk about how sexually-transmitted diseases are passed along. We won't be able to discuss safe sex practices even with other gay adults."

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), in its action alert, reminds people that it is not too late to work against the Exon bill. The group recommends calling or faxing House and Senate representatives, as well as contacting the White House. President Clinton is reported to be leaning in the direction of signing the bill into law.

That would be crippling, according to Adam Wills, president of the Portland Bisexual Alliance. "If Exon's bill becomes law, queers in Oregon will have a tough time doing their organizing on-line. Especially here, where groups like the Oregon citizens Alliance work to protect children from homosexuals. Web pages, bulletin boards and other accessible links would be cracked down," he warns. "It'll mean an electronic version of the Salem witch trials."

Davis' article appeared in the January issue of Baltimore Alternative. Davis can be reached at ndavis@clark.net. The article was reprinted with permission.
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