The following text is copyright 1995 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Is It A Small World After All?

By: Scott Bradner

A few weeks ago I wrote somewhat disparagingly about Senator Exon's ``Communications Decency Act of 1995.'' (NW 2.20.95) It seems that the good Senator has been persuaded that legislating the technically impossible is not good form but the socially questionable is still fair game.

Exon's bill has now been incorporated into the general communications reform bill working its way through the U.S. Senate. The bill which, if it passes as it now stands, will let the regional Bell operating companies offer long distance service and make a raft of other changes to what the communications companies see as the rules of the road. It will be interesting to watch company executives who have always operated under very strict regulations try and figure out how to play in a world where the rules come down to 'make what people want at a price they want to pay' rather than 'persuade the regulators to accept the correctness of your corporate vision.'

Some of the sillier provisions of Exon's bill were dropped before it was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. Gone are the rules that would have made the carriers of data responsible for the content of that data. But what remains will still cause some extensive discussions over the next few months. The current version of the bill calls for the same extended jail terms and large fines as the old version did but now the penalties await anyone who transmits "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent" material over a communications network.

The New York Times felt the issue important enough to put a story on the front page (above the fold) with the poetic title "Smut Ban Backed on Computer Nets". But then again the Times is not what one would call a conservative paper. I wonder how much attention the more conservative journals will give this topic now that the issues that threatened the basic business of the communications giants have been removed, or at least shifted, to the individual users.

Many other people will continue to express an interest in the progress of this part of the legislation. The adjectives used in the legislation, do not have what one would call concise definitions. There will be a quite legitimate, to me, worry that the interpretation could vary more than a little from place to place.

It still seems to me that there is a fundamental failure to recognize a change in paradigm going on here. The failure is not a new one, nor is it confined to telecommunications. Too many people seem to be operating at one level in the belief that the world is just what they can touch, despite what they can see on the TV. They seem to think that if some regulation is adopted to control some behavior that all of those prone to that behavior are within reach. This may be true in the realm of printed material where one can reach out and touch a printer or an importer. It may even be true for TV since the non-satellite signals do not travel that far. But it has not been true for quite a while in the area of short wave radio or telephone. It clearly is not true with satellite TV or the Internet. The promise and the threat of the Internet is that we are all everywhere.

In the Times article Exon is quoted as saying "I am not about to throw up my hands and give up." (This is within a day or two of his announcing that he was not going to run for reelection.) I do not want to say that either. Clearly one must strive to ensure that people who do not want to be exposed or should not be exposed to material that is objectionable in one way or another be free from the threat that they will be. I don't know how to do that. But I do know that telling Mr. Bill that he can not send a risque limerick to Ms. Mary even with her consent and somehow expecting that to apply to the complexly integrated world of today is not the only answer. I'm not even sure it is a part of the answer.

Speaking about regulations, did the FCC sneak in a rule that requires all people portrayed in cereal commercials be no smarter than the product they are advertising?

Disclaimer: Harvard has affiliates all over the world and I'm sure understands that mores, like politics, is all local but it has never told me that so this is only my supposition and opinion.