Facts and Factoids

Internet Hysteria is Silly

by Jim Carroll

Globe and Mail, March 21, 1995

I’m someone who lives in the global Internet community each day, and I feel compelled to respond to the article, “Something Wicked This ways Comes, and It’s on the Internet,” (Commentary, March 16, 1995) by Hal Joffe and Bernie Farber -- yet another article that sensationalizes the Internet.

As an author with a bestselling book about the Internet, I get a lot of calls from the press -- whose first question is often, “isn’t the Internet full of pornography?” (or pedophiles or Nazis or hackers or dweebs or geeks......) I find the reality of our wired world as found in the Internet, and the hysteria with which it is reported, to be vastly different. The Joffe/Farber article is typical, and suffers from two faults. First, they fall into the common trap of accepting media “hysteria” about the Int ernet as fact, and in fact, raise the level of hysteria to a fine art. Second, while they don’t call for control of the Internet, they strongly imply that this is necessary, and by doing so, display a shocking ignorance of the reality of the digital trans formation occurring in our society today.

Before I am accused of being a supporter of "evil things," let me start off by saying that I entirely sympathize with the concern they express with respect to the distribution of hate literature on the Internet. On the other hand, I am a realist -- I know that, as Economist magazine recently put it, "technological change will open new possibilities so fast that government efforts to regulate it and control it will seem ponderous."

Mr. Joffe and Mr. Farber, in seeking support for a clampdown on the Internet, use a "scare tactic" -- stories of pipe bombs and pornography and pedophilia -- hysteria guaranteed to raise the ire of the average Canadian. It is typical, in many ways, of me dia coverage of the Internet -- one need look no further than any Canadian newspaper to believe that the Internet consists of a bunch of teenaged boys, who, when they are not breaking into NORAD defense computers around the world, are staring at their Int ernet screens all day long to look at pictures of naked women, while they trade e-mail with tips on how to blow up the Pentagon! Horrors!

C’mon! The reality is far different. Tens of millions of people sign onto the Internet every day to research information. Companies are discovering new ways to globally compete through the Internet. Global knowledge access throughout the Internet has beco me fundamental to the regular working lives of many millions of people. Science, business -- our entire world -- is transformed as the whole of human knowledge becomes available in electronic form. And yes, some fringe elements use the Internet too.

Often, the level of Internet hysteria becomes, well, silly. The recent deathnet hysteria in the press, and noted in the article, is a good example. The situation is this -- the Right to Die Society of Canada recently established an Internet site, and the press printed shocking stories that the Internet now "gives explicit instructions on how to commit suicide." Joffe and Farber repeat this hysteria without any further research on their part, lending credibility to misreporting. Sadly missing is the fact t hat suicide information is not available on the Internet through deathnet. The media doesn’t bother to report that deathnet contains mostly information that exists in libraries and bookstores across the land. The media doesn’t report that visitors to Deat hNet must wait three months before receiving "suicide information" from the organization. (Heck, if someone wants to commit suicide, all they have to do is go to their local library or bookstore, since most carry the book Final Exit, a Globe and Mail nati onal bestseller, a book which has sold some 500,000 copies sold in North America.) Sadly missing in our media is reality -- what makes the printed page is hysteria.

The authors infer that in many cases, the law is powerless when it comes to this dark, evil Internet, and that it should be controlled.

Let’s think about what is happening here. The Internet is simply the leading edge of a trend in which all the computers in the world are plugging together. These computers can exchange digital bits -- the binary language of our wired world -- through glob al telecommunication networks -- telephones, satellites, cell phones, microwave dishes. I am a realist -- in the saw way I understand it to be impossible for anyone to control what millions of people might say through their telephones at any given moment , I understand it to be impossible to control what digital bits people might choose to exchange at the same time.

I have been on the Internet for some six years -- and I have never heard anyone tell me of a feasible technical solution to the challenge presented by these digital bits. (Well, there was one, but I don’t think we want to become our own little North Korea in this country by unplugging every single telephone in every home and office -- for good.) Brilliant computer ‘geeks’ -- the geniuses building the technology of the information highway -- understand that digital 1’s and 0’s have no respect for national laws, national borders and national controls. They understand that these digital bits travel the world at breathtaking speeds, via billions and trillions of different routes on our global communication spine. Shut down one digital route, and digital bits discover another, instantly. The reality of digital bits is a cold, hard reality.

If we accept the impossibility of controlling digital bits in our wired world (and I do), then I think we need a lot more maturity in our discussion about the impact of the Internet on our society. I am the first to agree that the Internet -- in fact, our entire digital society -- presents the world with some pretty challenging issues. No doubt, the global exchange of digital bits results in the distribution of information that is of questionable taste, is in violation of the laws of Canada, or runs again st currently accepted community standards. There is some pretty disgusting stuff out there.

We need reality, not hysteria, in our discussion. Folks like Joffe/Farber must realize that they won’t succeed in obtaining support in dealing with hate literature on the Internet, if they resort to insulting the intelligence of the many members of th e Internet community -- hardworking, average, every day, intelligent Canadians. Hysteria breeds contempt.

The solution? The other day I encountered my first neo-Nazi on the ‘Net, a madman spouting hate. You know what happened? A bunch of Internet citizens ran him out of town. Chased him away. Sent him packing. Gave him the big heave ho. I saw Internet providers refuse to sell him an account. I saw people fight his messages on-line. I saw a community galvanized to action.

What I saw was a community -- a global nation called the Internet -- that has learned to deal with the challenges presented by free-flowing digital bits. You want a solution to hate literature on the Internet? It’s staring you in the face, and its name is the Internet.


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