The US political climate is about as strange as the average Ithaca weather in that it’s seldom predictable, but often involves slush. Battles have been waged over issues like flag burning (does it count if I throw a TIFF image of the American flag in my Mac’s trash can?) and other free expression issues. Electronic freedoms have been in the news as well, what with the FBI seizing the equipment of suspected electronic burglars. It’s even gone so far that Mitch Kapor and others formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to educating both the government and the public about electronic freedoms.
In the midst of this thicket of confusion, up pops Prodigy, the online service run by IBM and Sears, two of the more conservative companies in the solar system. On the face of it, Prodigy sounds like a great deal, a flat rate of $9.95 for a month no matter how long you spend online. There are a few drawbacks, such as a fifth of the screen devoted to advertising and an interface from hell, but people didn’t mind that. Then came the slush. Prodigy decided that it wasn’t making enough money, so it raised the monthly rates and started charging 25 cents for each mail message over 30 per month. Considering that it costs the same amount to send real mail and have someone pick it up at your house and deliver it your friend, people became unhappy. First they started grumbling in the bulletin board areas, then in private mailing lists when Prodigy informed them that their griping was uninteresting and wouldn’t allow it posted. That wasn’t enough, so Prodigy changed its guidelines to make such mailing lists illegal. In addition, Prodigy expelled the most vocal of the dissenters and starting screening even private mail to be sure its guidelines aren’t weren’t violated. Now there’s a nasty job.
Due in part to the massive bad press, though, Prodigy now says that it will reinstate the people it expelled if they sign letters admitting that they harassed other Prodigy members and advertisers with their protest. From what we’ve heard, Prodigy’s offer has been turned down cold. The other online services have been happily taking the users who are unhappy with Prodigy’s censorship practices.
This ugly incident point more towards a larger issue of the boundary between email and normal mail. Opening a letter that’s not addressed to you is a US federal crime, and it’s no better for a mail carrier to do so. Similarly, free speech guarantees that you can say what you want in person, but that doesn’t seem to apply to electronic discussions. In our opinion, freedom of expression should not be limited by the medium of expression, but only by its ability to directly harm another person. An excellent example is Usenet, where lots of unpleasant and controversial subjects are discussed. You can say anything you wish without fear of legal reprisal (except for some local computer abuse laws). However, if what you say is deemed inappropriate for any reason, prepare to be flamed. That internal set of checks and balances serves to properly compartmentalize topics, so if your message belongs in alt.sex.chains&whipped_cream, it had better not show up in comp.sys.mac.misc. In the vast majority of cases, the existence of appropriate forums is enough; and in the few exceptions, public uproar serves to keep the peace. If only the rest of the electronic world were so reasonable.
PC WEEK — 03-Dec-90, Vol. 7, #48, pg. 13
InfoWorld — 26-Nov-90, Vol. 12, #48, pg. 5
MacWEEK — 04-Dec-90, Vol. 4, #41, pg. 36