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Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace: Freedom and Censorship on the Frontiers of the Online Revolution
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Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace: Freedom and Censorship on the Frontiers of the Online Revolution

While apparently pressed by the publisher to dress up what was perceived as a dry legal text in imitation of “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” a more apt title of this work may be “Barbarians at the Gate.” Fierce defenders of individual rights, laissez faire, and unfettered online activity for those who wish it, Wallace & Mangan, attorney and computer specialist, respectively, present in excruciating (and needless) detail the most important Internet “free speech” cases of the early 1990s, issuing a clarion call to rally round the flag of what they regard as the original intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution regarding the First Amendment in the face of repeated efforts by local governments and federal regulators to restrict access in the interest of protecting the public.

In reading this book, this reviewer is more than surprised to find any common ground with that notorious gender-war chauvinist, law Professor Catherine McKinnon, in her crusade against men and masculinity, but common ground there is. Wallace & Mangan dismiss any rationale for regulating online content or access, whether in the name of national security or public morals, as “political sophistry.” In their view, the intent of the Founders is that all speech should be unrestricted come what may; that the technology of the Internet requires a great effort by users to access so it harms no one who doesn’t seek it out; and that ultimately it is the responsibility of individuals, not society, to govern themselves and to protect their children if they harbor concerns about online safety.

This book was written in the days of restricted bulletin boards and before 9/11, and their principal arguments no longer hold sway. Today, obscenity does not wait for the online user to seek it out—it floods every email account and web search as soon as one ventures in, and defies one to do anything about it. The online user, adult or child, is under constant seige to preserve the slightest standard of rational sense or morality when online, and—for the criminally-inclined—access to instructions, faulty or otherwise, on how to make bombs, chemical weapons, or steal personal information, is available at the movement of a finger. In an age when rampant divorce and the collapse of much of the social fabric in the US have effectively removed all supervision from hosts of immature online users, it is naive and pathetic to imagine that a simple nanny gateway installed by overworked and atomized parents in their scattered isolated refuges can restore to their homes any semblance of the kind of privacy that the authors so zealously defend for adult computer users.

No one advocates returning to the days before PGP, not when phishing and online ID theft are equally rampant, but not only did the authors write their book in a time of greater innocence, they undermined their own “sacredness of free speech” argument by also spelling out in detail the long history of legitimate governmental regulation of speech, before the post-WWII period of expansive Supreme Court interpretation, implying that such a time could return. In this reviewer’s opinion, it has. Efforts to curtail the deranged violence of vicious stalkers like Jake Baker, who conspired online with like-minded strangers to ambush, torture, and murder identified teenage girls, then hid behind the First Amendment on the grounds that he was merely a “writer,” are not merely politically self-serving for ideologues like McKinnon, but essential to the preservation of society as a whole.

The “political sophistry” is not with those who seek to place some rational limit on “free speech.” Large areas of speech are prohibited and always have been. One cannot, for example, defame one’s neighbor by name in public announcements, or use images of others for profit without their consent, or advertise a product for sale at a low price, then deceptively charge a high price, or burn crosses on others’ lawns and hang nooses in their trees. The sophistry is reducing any opposition to the puerile fantasy of totally unrestricted free speech with the easy slogan “if we strip away the Constitution to fight terror and anarchy, all we will have left at the end of the day are anarchy and terror.” The effective reply to such a reductio ad absurdum is “one must be alive to enjoy freedom.” Though a succession of Supreme Courts have often interpreted the Constitution as a de facto suicide pact, thus the government’s blindness to the warning signs of 9/11, such interpretations are misguided. —SiriusReviews.com.

Sirius Reviews

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