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Banned in Boston, and everywhere else

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Banned in Boston, and everywhere else

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

I was banned in Boston the other day.

And in Chicago and Los Angeles.

I was banned in the rest of the country, too. It lasted for a week.

It was the first time I'd ever been censored.

It all started when I tried to catch up on my mail. I had thousands of unread messages to look through on one of the national computer networks. Nearly all the messages were public postings in the conferences. Anybody in the United States can read them just by calling the network by computer.

Public messages on this network are supposed to be civil. After all, the notes that are posted are just like the scraps of paper that you see on supermarket bulletin boards. You don't want to embarrass anyone or make unpleasant remarks in public.

But as I started to read the public messages, I came across one directed solely at me. If it had been a private letter, I wouldn't have minded at all. But out in the open, where any caller could read it-right out on the supermarket wall, so to speak-was a note that said, more or less, that I had an unorthodox way of dealing with the truth.

A liar? Was that what I was being called?

So what, you say? You write for a living, you take your lumps, and that's that. I get letters now and then from regular readers who tell me I don't know what I'm talking about. One guy even sends me unprintable references to my ancestors. I'm used to it.

But these aren't public remarks. They're personal and private. You can ignore something like that and nobody else cares. Nobody else knows.

The public note I found on the computer network had gone too far. I wrote a reply pointing this out. I made a couple of pointed remarks about the letter-writer's grumpiness, and then I posted my reply in the same area of the conferencing network.

Since his note about me had been public, I made sure my response was public, too.

I called back to look for any new mail the next day. I had a private note from one of the people in charge of the network. Cool it, he said. The other guy is being told the same thing, his note said. The two of you should calm yourselves down.

I didn't like being told not to defend myself. I wasn't about to keep quiet.

So I checked back into the public messages and found another one from the same caller. It slammed me even harder.

And so I slammed back. Nothing could stop me now.

Or so I thought. When I called again two days later, everything seemed normal. While I was reading a message, I pressed a couple of keys to tell the network that I wanted to write a comment. They were the same keys I'd always pressed.

But this time instead of getting the OK from the computer system, I got a note back from the network. You can't do that, it said in network language. You can't reply to that message.

I tried again. Same thing. I went to another message and tried to respond to it.

Sorry! This isn't allowed, the network told me. The actual note was "access denied," or something like that.

It was that way for all of the conferences I checked into. I had been silenced. I could read but not write.

Later, I found an electronic mail letter from the network manager. His note had been mailed to both me and my antagonist. It said we were being childish. Our angry messages had been deleted so nobody could read them.

The censorship would last a few days, he said. He also said things could get worse if we didn't behave.

This last part was a little odd. Without the ability to write public messages, we had no way to misbehave. We were like patrons of the supermarket who were locked out just outside the door. We could see the little pieces of paper on the public bulletin board, but we couldn't put up any ourselves.

I fired off a private reply to the manager. I pay for this service, I reminded him. It's not a service when I can't respond to public messages.

I told him I shouldn't have to pay for the time that I was censored. He wrote back right away and told me I wouldn't be charged for that period.

By the following week I was back to full status. I minded my manners, and I've been a good boy ever since. I haven't had an argument with anybody.

But the whole experience has been unsettling. It's clear that nobody came out ahead, but I still haven't figured out who lost more-the other network callers, presumably embarrassed, who had to pick their way past our public spat, or the two of us, muzzled and singled out, treated like 7-year-olds.

Maybe the real loss is an almost insignificant erosion of the right of free expression. This decade will mark the beginning of true mass communication by computer. In some ways, conferencing networks will become as important as newspapers, and much of the time they'll serve as a replacement for the U.S. mail.

However, unlike the press and the postal service, with their long traditions of free speech, computer networks don't have history as a guide. They'll do whatever their managers want. And that means censorship just as easily as it means anything else.

When that day comes, who will decide what can be said in public? It's worth thinking about now, while networks and other information services are still in their infancy. It may be too late when they've grown up.

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