By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Those of us who had thought the Internet was growing up were reminded last week that the information we share on the Internet is a tenuous thing.
Less than a week before election day, the state attorney general raided one of the biggest Internet Service Providers in Central New York. State officials carted off a computer used to store newsgroup messages on the claim that some of the messages contained child pornography.
Dennis Vacco, the attorney general, would love to hear us talk about the porn angle in his action against Dreamscape Online. But I think we need to look at something closer to home. I don't know any child pornographers, but I know a lot of people who send and receive messages on newsgroups.
A few years ago, my wife, Nancy, worked hard to get Dreamscape to start carrying a newsgroup on the topic of grief and loss. No child porn there. Just a lot of wonderful people helping each other out. It took a while, but Dreamscape's management agreed to add that newsgroup to its list.
I know how Vacco feels about child porn. I don't know how he feels about coping with grief or about about a topic I've followed in the newsgroups, the Year 2000 problem. Or about programming in Visual Basic for Applications, another newsgroup topic I follow.
It's easy to be flip about this. With 30,000 different newsgroups and hundreds of thousands of messages carried daily by Dreamscape's news server, it's easy to poke fun at someone who singles out a few messages and decides the computer carrying all those 30,000 newsgroups has to be hauled away.
And politicians always make good targets, especially when they're running for office.
But the serious side of such a raid is too important to ignore. Three issues stand out:
Internet Service Providers are not simply pipelines for Web surfers and news-group junkies. They shuttle mail back and forth -- including, of course, mail and messages essential for the daily operation of businesses. Interrupting that service -- or even merely threatening to interrupt that business -- is a very serious matter.
The integrity of our connections to the Internet and to each other depends on a kind of social compact. Even without the need for laws from Albany or Washington, we expect those connections to remain inviolate. We expect them to be dependable and we require them to be safe from intrusion.
We expect our goverment officials to act like adults. An adult way of dealing with something as distasteful as child porn is to ask that a responsible Internet provider stop carrying the few newsgroups that deal with it. The attorney general did not do that. Instead, he decided to seize the "evidence," as if Dreamscape's management had somehow colluded with child pornographers on the other side of the globe.
The troubling part of this is not knowing where it will end. Suppose the attorney general or a "concerned citizen" decides that a newsgroup about communal living is distasteful? Or that newsgroups dealing with genealogy might be "misused" by adoptees searching for their biological parents? Or that a newsgroup that prints the lyrics to popular rock songs exceeds the bounds of decency?
In Queen Victoria's time, chickens stopped having breasts. They had "white meat" instead of "breast meat." Table legs started being modest -- their ankles had to be covered up. Shakespeare was "revised" and the Bible was sanitized. Citizens needed to be protected.
Rational adults can have different ideas about who needs to be protected and what they need protection from. This is how a democracy should work. Personally, I don't need Dennis Vacco's hands on my Internet provider's computers. Others might feel differently. It's their choice.
But pro or con, we all need to understand something.
The Internet is a vast place. It is chaotic, disorganized, befuddling and exasperating.
But what's new about that? Life itself can be chaotic, disorganized, befuddling and exasperating. Both the Internet and life in general share another trait, too. They are both difficult to control.
Try as we might, we're probably never going to be able to get rid of war, famine, violence, disease and loneliness. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try or that we should ever give up even when we seem to be losing. But it does mean we're wasting our time if we aim in the wrong direction. Feeding the hungry works better than arguing about farm policies. Preventing conflicts works better than burying the dead.
Shutting down child porn operations solves the problem at the source. Asking Internet providers to cooperate makes sense. Taking away computers that carry my wife's messages about coping with loss or my information on computer programming or someone else's search for their roots is not only a waste of effort. It's an affront to that social contract that asks all of us to respect the rights of others.