Underground Movement

The Chinese government has imposed stiff fines and prison sentences for distribution or consumption via the Net of "harmful information," defined as that which "defames government agencies," "impedes public order," or "damages state interests." Both providers and consumers can be held in violation.

When the law took effect on January 1, there was little reaction in the American media, in part because this latest threat to basic human rights seems, relatively speaking, fairly minor. The story also received short shrift because the Internet and accompanying technologies are typically covered in the business section under the heading "technology." Content, unless it is advertorial, is rarely an issue. If there is a new Web site or on-line opportunity, its address usually shows up in the entertainment section, a kind of novel afterthought, like a video game or new restaurant.

What's rarely discussed in this framework is the social and political impact of the World Wide Web, and how any rules or regulations can affect overall content, especially those which hold people accountable not only for what they produce, but also what they read. More than any medium to date, the computer modem gives average humans an opportunity to cheaply, efficiently, and communally critique the status quo. It's a place where people can, at least in theory, communicate unfettered by language barriers, political boundaries or cultural stereotypes--underground radio with less gear.

In Minneapolis, for example, a group of disgruntled slackers is taking advantage of the medium's relative freedom to produce a hilarious bit of irreverence aimed at local media. Found at www.cursor.org, the site's first issue rips the preening fakeness of broadcast news, provides links to other media criticism sites, and provides an area to sound off (hopefully, no one in China will mistakenly type in the URL). "We just became so tired of yelling at the TV screen and complaining about how bad the media was getting, we decided to try and do something about it. And we're doing it for free, volunteering our time and energy," says Rob Levine, the site's designer.

What no one knows is how much longer sites like cursor.org will be able to spontaneously spring up. As big-business interests cash in on the new technology, they opt for more palatable, more controlled, more profit-oriented fare--much like the nightly-news programs and daily papers they own. Take, for example, the telephone industry's latest lobbying effort. Not as blatant as China's new law, it could nevertheless be devastating to those still trying to tap the Web's power for something besides a profit margin. Phone companies, contending that Internet usage is hindering operation of the telephone network, have filed a proposal with the FCC to impose per-minute charge every time someone is on-line. The fee could be as high as 90 cents a minute, and could be imposed as early as next year.

It's not enough that many of these companies already earn money as service providers, they want a sweeter piece of the pie. In the process they just might make it harder for regular people to access a Net where it's still OK in some places to "defame government agencies" and "impede public order."

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