"Remember Elvis," my friend Grace says. "People try to ban what they don't understand."
Grace isn't wired. She's barely old enough to remember Watergate, and her firsthand memories are only of Fat Elvis. But she's been on this earth more than long enough to recognize the reflexive responses of a threatened power structure.
Elvis, like the net, ran into trouble because people who didn't understand what his music was about worried that it might corrupt The Children. His singing and dancing were considered lewd and not fit for "decent people." Community leaders held bonfires of rock 'n' roll records, proclaiming them a "Threat to the Republic." Ed Sullivan put Elvis on the air, but even Sullivan wasn't brave enough to show Presley from the waist down.
Of course, Elvis wasn't the first and he wasn't the the last. Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and more all spent an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money defending themselves as they helped redefine the map of popular culture. And that doesn't even begin to list the legions of artists, writers, philosophers, and teachers who were pilloried and worse for putting old thoughts together in new-and possibly threatening-ways.
I've been doing a lot of interviews lately with mainstream media. Some reporters have a clue about the net. Others don't. The former group tends to focus on the empowerment aspects of the net. The latter wants to know only about cyberporn, pedophiles, encryption, pirated software, Nazis, and chain letters. One tabloid show has called a couple of times; the first time, it wanted my help finding nude pictures of Brad Pitt on the Web. I didn't return the second call.
A recurring theme in many of the questions I'm called upon to answer has to do with whether the net should be regulated, since so much nasty stuff supposedly goes on there. The more assiduous reporters who are new to the net actually log on to see what's happening. The first stop for many of them are chat rooms, which only confirm their worst suspicions. It's not unlike having your first view of New York be the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which is at the famously gamy corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. And far more kids have disappeared into bad lives near the Port Authority than have ever been lured away from home by strangers on AOL.
But if the first thing you see in New York is the bus terminal and you run away thinking you've seen it all, you'll miss the wonderful public library that's only four blocks away. You won't see any Broadway shows, which are even closer. You'll understand New York only as a town of tourist traps, peep shows, and hookers. You won't see the city's glory. Regulate the net? You might as well try to regulate New York. Many have tried. No one has succeeded.
The analogy isn't entirely gratuitous. There is no behavior that happens online that doesn't happen in the real world. It's true that people send indecent e-mail and electronic chain letters, and they post hateful screeds on Usenet. Even though no one has ever sent me an obscene image through the U.S. mail, I've gotten lots of chain letters that way and have come home to find a racist message on my telephone answering machine. I tossed the mail and zapped the message, possibly muttering a favorite Anglo-Saxonism. But there's no way I would want the FBI to poke through my mail to protect me against investment scams, and I would have a fit if I learned that the NSA or some other three-letter agency were diverting phone calls they thought might upset me.
I am, after all, an adult. I know where the delete key is, I have an active recycling bin at home, and I'm not afraid to use either. I don't need anyone protecting me from information, and I'd bet that you don't, either. But what about your kids? Shouldn't The Children be protected?
Of course they should. It's unarguable that many things in this world are not fit for children. Most kids probably shouldn't be watching NYPD Blue, or replays of the O.J. Simpson trial, or the latest Terminator movie. But many do, for whatever reason. Most kids shouldn't be calling dial-a-porn telephone services, either. Some do. There are parts of the net that really are inappropriate for children as well, yet there they are.
It's worth repeating: There is no behavior that happens online that doesn't happen in the real world. If you don't want your kids talking to strangers on the street, teach them not to talk to strangers online. If you don't want your kids looking at nudie magazines, lock them out of the particular online forums where they might find that same kind of material. You presumably wouldn't hire a human babysitter you didn't check out at least a little; if you're counting on an online service to do the same sort of job, you really ought to find out what your kid's getting into.
Many adults who are online for longer than their free introductory trials understand this. They've seen the parental controls available to them, and they know what's really out there. It's the people who haven't had the online experience who worry me more.
A lot of bad legislation is floating around Congress, supported by people-some of whom are well-meaning-who can't possibly have thought through the implications of what they've proposed. One reporter for a business-oriented cable channel recently asked me what was wrong with a governmental agency scanning the net for indecency and false ad- vertising. Could you imagine this reporter's reaction if he learned that the Commerce Department or SEC was approving everything he read in The Wall Street Journal? People who would take up guns and lawyers at the prospect of having the government filter their mail and newspapers seem oblivious about the same thing happening to their electronic communications.
Of course, obscenity and fraud shouldn't be allowed online, just as it shouldn't be allowed anywhere else. By the same token, people shouldn't be allowed to libel other people online, and they shouldn't be allowed to break into other people's computers. But all those things are already against the law. By ratcheting up the hysteria about the net, by treating the electronic world as if it were something hidden and mysterious and dangerous, legislators who have better things to do can always grab a quick headline. After all, it's to protect The Children.
The same premise applies to libraries; there's a good reason that there are children's sections of libraries, but once a kid graduates into the adult library, I don't want some local council saying that Huck Finn, Anne Frank, or Holden Caulfield should be kept off the shelves. Given the choice between subjecting kids to the net or subjecting them to thoughtless politicians, I'll take my chances with the net.
Yet people continue to worry, both about the corrosive effects of popular culture and the corrupting effects of the net. Too many people believe the net is like what they see in the movies or in television sound bites. If all that people know about the net is that it's where Nazis and pedophiles hang out, how can the net ever become truly mainstream?
Because people can be fooled for only so long. And let's face it: The same headlines that warned people about the evils of rock 'n' roll helped make Elvis, his imitators, and his heirs rich. It helped that Elvis was immensely talented, of course, just as it helps that the net is immensely diverting, great fun, and endlessly useful.
Every so often I'll pop on a CD of some of the music that was once bannable. Funny thing is, with the distance of time, most of it sounds downright tame. Were people really upset about "All Shook Up?" Did the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and the Clash's "London Calling" truly pose a threat to Britain? Culture evolves. Some bad culture becomes part of the mainstream. Most of it evaporates of its own accord.
But my friend Grace is right. People do try to ban what they don't understand. If they do it out of fear and ignorance, we're lucky, because fear and ignorance we can cure. Malice is harder to fix. It's up to all of us who already get it to carry the message-to explain simply and clearly why we're on the net, and that it's more like a fabulous library than a strip club.