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Sirico Parables book

by Rev. Robert A. Sirico
Forbes, July 29, 1996

Just as we had become used to our freedoms being worn away, a federal court did the right thing. It stood up for the right to free speech by declaring unconstitutional parts of the Communications Decency Act, which gave Washington power to regulate the Internet.

We didn't have to wait for this decision to know that government's attempt to clean up the Internet would ultimately fail. The law is unnecessary and unworkable, a threat to a medium that has thus far served the public extremely well. It comes with no viable plan for shielding children, other than granting new powers to government bureaucrats. But the battle is not over. The Justice Department will most likely appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

The cry "We must protect the children" has been responsible for the many abuses of the welfare state. It is an easy sell when someone wants to grab power. When politicians say they want to regulate the Internet for the same reason, think twice.

As with print, much of the material available on the Internet is intelligent and worthy of our attention. And some of it is unspeakably vile. The difficulty in separating the two rests in the fact that much of the Internet's value lies in its freedom from regulation.

To allow the federal government to censor means granting it the power to determine what information we can and cannot have access to. Already, the FBI has abused its power over the Internet by investigating CompuServe, in violation of a court order. If you want to see pornography banished, you must recognize that federal government censorship is not going to accomplish that goal.

In many ways, the Internet operates as a microcosm of society. It has taken its own shape according to the actions of millions of participating individuals. The medium is used for every purpose--delivering news, religious evangelism, academic research, business and just plain fun. Do we really want the government telling us how to use this wonderful tool? If ever there was a case of the market outwitting social planners, the growth and development of the Internet is it. It is a product of what F.A. Hayek called spontaneous order. The invisible hand of the market has made it a revolutionary means of communication and information transmission.

Of course, it also has been used for such evil purposes as broadcasting hateful politics and pornography. I am told there are 3,000 X- and R-rated sites to be found on the Internet. But the medium is not unique in its potential to corrupt. So can books, magazines and even, of late, prime-time television. Temptations to sin will always be with us and around us so long as we live in this world.

Parents today face threats to their children's innocence that earlier generations never knew. And they are rightly concerned about the availability of pornography to youngsters. But if we want kids to be protected, we should not send parents the message that the federal government will do the job–not on the Internet, in movie theaters or on television.

Federal officials are unfit stewards for our young people. With rare exceptions, they have exhibited no genuine interest in moral values. They, too, are stained with original sin. Look at the federal government's own record. It has foisted graphic sex education on children in public schools. It is itself the largest purveyor of pornography, in the form of magazine sales on military bases. I'd rather entrust the protection of morality to parents and local communities.

Yet in this issue the government sees a possible instrument to establish government control in an intensely powerful medium.

So what can parents do to keep pornography out of their homes? The market has already provided solutions. Internet users can subscribe to growing numbers of "parental control" programs. These filter out offensive materials by screening key words or simply limiting kids to a "white list" of approved sites. It's as easy as downloading a file and nearly impossible to outwit.

The best thing citizens concerned about the innocence of children can do is become familiar with these ways to self- regulate the Internet and tell their friends. We need parents, not the government, to take control.

If we grant politicians the power to regulate, we risk weakening a key virtue of the Internet--its spontaneity and open access. On the other hand, internal market regulation protects the proposition that we can be virtuous and remain free.