The following article appears in the September 20-26, 1996 issue of OC Weekly and is reproduced by permission of its author. Copyright © 1996 by Wyn Hilty. All rights reserved.
Why on earth would I put on the Pulpless.Comtm website an article which gives a bad review to one of our authors?
Well, first of all, it's not one of my novels that's getting slammed!
But seriously, folks, we're a new outfit and we just got made the lead item in a cover story reaching lots of people in Orange County, California -- an area where more than a few people have been known to buy computers.
I don't have to like or agree with what Wyn Hilty said about Volk. If you read Brad Linaweaver's Foreword to Volk, you'll discover that my opinion declaring Volk a suppressed masterpiece is shared by another novelist who, like me, has won some literary accolades and whose opinion might not be so easy to dismiss. You can also read a highly positive review of the novel online, on the website of a Canadian Piers Anthony fan, David McGrath. And just for the record, the paragraph that Wyn Hilty pulls from Volk to show you how badly written it is is one I might have used myself to show how good the writing us. There's no accounting for taste.
So I'm not overly concerned with Wyn Hilty's bad review of Volk contained in this article. Opposing points of view create controversy, controversy creates word-of-mouth, and word-of-mouth is precisely what Pulpless.Comtm needs right now to get people to take a look not only at Volk, but our other fine books.
The article is here because it has a lot to say about the World Wide Web ... and we lead off the story ... and here we are. -- JNS
Psssst. Hey, buddy--wanna read Piers Anthony's most dangerous book?
When I think of Piers Anthony--author of more than a hundred novels, many of them best-sellers--the word "dangerous" does not immediately leap to mind. But Long Beach author/publisher J. Neil Schulman has designed a site on the World Wide Web to sell books that would never make it into print if it were left up to the risk-averse New York publishing world.
"Here's Piers Anthony, who's had 102 books published and more in the pipeline and 21 New York Times best-sellers," Schulman said. "His greatest novel is Volk, and New York doesn't want to touch it because it's too dangerous. Here he's writing what he considers one of his two most important novels, and he's being treated like a first novelist. That's just astonishing to me. People think we have a free press in this country, but if you're not in a specific pigeonhole, [no one will touch you]."
It is true that Anthony is largely known for writing preadolescent and adolescent fantasy. I discovered his Xanth books when I was about 12; I'm now 27, and he's still churning them out. It is also true that genre authors tend to have difficulty persuading publishing houses to take a chance on works outside their usual niche. But Anthony's work has gone downhill over the past 10 years or so; the last book that I really thought was up to his past standards was On a Pale Horse, published in 1983. I was curious to see whether Volk was as good as Schulman believes it is. So I accessed his Web site and wasted a couple of trees printing the book out.
On your basic plot synopsis level, Volk follows three friends during World War II: Lane, an American soldier; Quality, his Quaker fiancee, who is working with war victims in Spain; and Ernst, a faithful member of the Nazi party who attended college in America before the war. The "dangerous" aspect of this book, as nearly as I can determine without giving away too many plot points, is that the Nazi is not depicted as a satanic mass murderer and the Americans are not portrayed as square-jawed, broad-shouldered heroes. In fact, some of the Americans come off as sadistic pigs. But the realization that we can be just as brutal as the rest of the world shouldn't be news to anyone who grew up in the post-Vietnam era and saw pictures of children on fire and shyly smiling soldiers holding up severed Vietnamese ears.
I'm trying to be as tactful as I can here, because I think Anthony is one of the nicest people on earth. He and I corresponded briefly when I was a teenager (I still have the letters somewhere), and he is known for showing a tremendous interest in his fans, publishing little acknowledgments in the backs of his books thanking his readers for suggestions and ideas. But I also think we don't need to look to a rigid, panicky publishing world to understand why even a multibillion-best-selling author couldn't sell Volk. The book is wretched; it reads as if Anthony churned it out in about a week and a half. It is sloppy and unstructured, taking the reader on such a whirlwind tour of WW II that there's no time for us to see anything happen. Instead of showing us why Lane loves Quality, the author merely tells us that he does. Instead of revealing through Ernst's behavior how he feels about the blonde pursuing him, Anthony writes, "His prior image of her was fading under the onslaught of present reality. She was one radiantly attractive girl, and the force of her prettiness was almost tangible. But he was wary of such attention. Why should this newly bloomed creature be so fascinated with him, after two years separation? He preferred to ascertain her true motive before accepting her interest at face value. So he temporized." Ick.
That said, I do agree with Schulman that online publishing is a fabulous way for outsider voices to reach their audience without being funneled through the established press. Schulman is passionate and articulate about online publishing, which he sees as the future of print. "Everybody has access to the World Wide Web," he said. "And there are no printing charges beforehand; it's entirely on demand. The start-up cost is by traditional standards very, very low, which enables self-publishing to become a financial possibility. The World Wide Web has made it possible to start the business and keep it going as a one- to two-person operation."
All of this is somewhat ironic, of course, because the Internet, of which the World Wide Web is the most popular section, was never meant to be used for business. That has changed so drastically in the past few years that now a company is nowhere unless it has a presence on the Web. Cybermalls are springing up everywhere. Huge conglomerates like Disney and Time-Warner are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into their Web sites. And the veteran denizens of the Internet--dismissed variously as geeks, losers, elitists and assholes--are witnessing with trepidation the upheaval of their online world. No one knows quite what the Internet will look like once the dust settles, but one thing is clear: the free market has indisputably arrived.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
In the late '60s, the Defense Department funded the development of a computer network known as the ARPAnet. Because this was during the depths of the Cold War, the goal was to create a network without any central controlling computer so that it could survive a nuclear strike. But this requirement meant that all the computers on the ARPAnet had to work with each other, regardless of whether it was in each individual user's interest. Let's say you were working on a computer in Boston and you wanted to send some information to Berkeley. That data might have to pass through dozens of different computers in order to get to its destination, each networked machine faithfully forwarding the data packet. This worked well partly because most of those using the ARPAnet were academic computer science departments with defense contracts, who were committed to sharing their work with each other rather than engaging in the cutthroat competition of the business world.
But businesspeople weren't the only ones denied access to the ARPAnet; many academics without defense contracts were interested in the electronic exchange of information too. So in 1979, several grad students in North Carolina decided to start a network that would link computers running on the UNIX operating system. Stephen Daniel, one of the grad students at Duke University, wrote about the origin of their "poor man's ARPAnet" in the Usenet history archives. "We had little idea of what was really going on on the ARPAnet, but we knew we were excluded," he said. "It was commonly accepted at the time that to join the ARPAnet took political connections and $100,000. . . . The 'poor man's ARPAnet' was our way of joining the computer science community, and we made a deliberate attempt to extend it to other not-well-endowed members of the community."
The Usenet, as it was dubbed, initially linked only three computer sites, but by 1982 it had ballooned to 400. Its founders had envisioned it as a way for UNIX users to share problems and solutions. But it quickly transformed into a place where people with a common interest--any common interest--could talk, share information and argue with each other. Today, there are more than 15,000 newsgroups swarming with people exchanging electronic information on subjects such as alt.barney.die.die.die, alt.meter-maid.lovely.rita and alt.recovery.compulsive-eat.
Usenet's users like to claim it's an anarchy. To some extent that's true because there is no central governing body. Newsgroups are born and die organically, as the users' interests in topics wax or wane, and communications on those groups are as close to free speech as we can get these days (unless you're a Scientologist, but more on that later). But there are certainly rules that Usenet users must follow: a code of behavior known as Netiquette.
There are dozens of Netiquette guides floating around on the Internet, and they offer varying advice on how to behave yourself in cyberspace. Some of the rules are just common sense: don't post messages about ferrets on a newsgroup about the stock exchange. Don't type messages in all caps--THEY'RE TOO HARD TO READ! Read the newsgroup's FAQ (frequently asked questions list) before you contribute anything. And, in general, don't be a jerk, or you're gonna get flamed.
Flaming is probably the single most complained-about aspect of the Internet. Hardly a week can go by without some hapless newbie posting a seemingly innocuous little message and then receiving nasty e-mails questioning their legitimacy, their intelligence and their right to exist. Unquestionably, flamers often overreact, attacking transgressors with a viciousness they wouldn't dream of using face to face, just like when you cuss out other drivers while you're in your car. But it's important to understand that Netiquette isn't just a collection of arbitrary rules. There are good reasons behind most online customs. Posting inappropriate messages wastes other users' time and annoys them--kind of like going to a fancy French restaurant where some lunkhead in your party demands baloney on Wonder bread. Asking questions that were discussed months ago wastes money--the longer it takes others to read the newsgroup's postings, the longer they have to stay online. And stomping around in some newsgroup like a Brahma bull and throwing out opinions is ruder than any flame. These rules exist not because the Usenet is populated by social rejects and elitists, as many have argued, but because the Usenet needs them in order to survive. If everyone posted anything they wanted anywhere they wanted, the network would collapse because no one would be able to find their way around. Everyone has to mind their manners.
So what do you get when business tries to infiltrate a culture where citizens are expected to give as well as take, cooperate and coexist peacefully, and follow a unique set of rules that protect their world? Trouble. Right here in River City.
SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM
Of all the sins people can commit on the Usenet, spamming is the most heinous. Spamming involves posting multiple copies of the same message to many different, unrelated newsgroups. This can cause problems beyond just irritating the hell out of people. If you post the same message to 6,000 newsgroups, all of a sudden you're taking up quite a bit of space on the Usenet. Do this enough times with a large file, and you have a serious storage problem on your hands. A slightly lesser crime is known as Velveeta, where the same message is crossposted to many unrelated newsgroups. This has the same aggravation quotient, but it doesn't take up huge amounts of disk space.
Many, though not all, spammers are businesses. A pyramid scheme dubbed "MAKE MONEY FAST!" has been circulating on the Usenet since 1988 or so. Another capitalist earned Netizens' wrath by repeatedly spamming the net with anonymous postings advertising a long-distance calling plan. But by far the most despised online marketers are Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, the infamous Green Card Lawyers.
In March 1994, a message appeared on virtually every newsgroup on the Usenet (reported variously as 5,000 and 6,000), advertising Canter and Siegel's services in immigration law. For $100, the husband-and-wife team offered to fill out applications for the green card lottery, an event held every year by the U.S. government. The resulting flood of 35,000 responses from enraged Netizens crashed their access provider's system by filling an estimated 73 gigabits of storage, according to Internet Direct's business manager, Bill Fisher. (For you technophobes out there, 73 gigabits is a lot of storage space.) Internet Direct promptly revoked their account.
CnS (as they're semiaffectionately known on the Net) have repeatedly claimed that this posting generated $100,000 in revenue for their Arizona law firm. Fisher disputed this, saying that the vast majority of responses were either flames or mail bombs--messages designed to crash the recipient's system. Not only were CnS unrepentant about the torrent of electronic hatred they had unleashed, but they also wrote a book purporting to teach others the secrets of online marketing titled How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway. Then they spammed Usenet again, this time with an ad for the book.
CnS' basic argument since the beginning has been, "Hey, it's not illegal to advertise on the Usenet, so we're going to"--a classic lawyerly rationalization. It's not illegal for solicitors to come to your door, either, but it's really damn annoying. CnS seem to think that the Usenet will be just dandy for business use, once they've gotten rid of all the unruly natives. They mock the rules of Netiquette that help keep the Usenet alive as too complex for any reasonable person to keep straight (and they practice immigration law!). Their contempt for and loathing of Netizens spill from every page of their book. Here are a few representative samples:
Dyed-in-the-wool Internet devotees . . . picture themselves as Captain Kirk, daring to go where no man has ever gone before. They imagine they are brave explorers, riding their computer keyboards through electronic lollipop land.
Some starry-eyed individuals who access the Net think of cyberspace as a community, with rules, regulations and codes of behavior. Don't you believe it!
The day you say good-bye to a geek will probably bring you warm memories for the rest of your life.
One theme CnS keep circling back to in their book is an image of themselves as brave pioneers of cyberspace, blazing a trail for others to follow. They see the Internet as the new Old West, the final frontier. "Like the Old West, cyberspace is going to take some taming before it is a completely fit place for people like you and me to spend time," they wrote. "There is a small but extremely vocal group that will do almost anything to keep out the new settlers." Funny, but last time I checked, the taming of the old West--and indeed the rest of the country--was one of the more shameful events in our history. The palefaces arrived, saw a perfectly good continent going to "waste," and started chopping down every tree in sight and exterminating the natives, by disease or by musket.
Of course, the Internet natives aren't giving up peacefully, any more than the Indians did. When CnS tried to spam the Usenet repeatedly, an anonymous Netizen known as the Cancelmoose sent out programs (a.k.a. cancelbots) to delete their messages from the system. Other Netizens wrote letters to the Tennessee bar, where CnS are licensed to practice law (as immigration lawyers, they can locate anywhere in the U.S.), urging them to revoke the couple's licenses. Several Internet blacklists sprang up to keep Netizens updated on Usenet advertisers and to offer suggestions on how to get rid of them.
The civil disobedience appears to have worked. For several weeks, I tried to track down CnS. I asked blacklist maintainers. I contacted HarperCollins, the firm that published their book. I checked the net.abuse newsgroup, where advertisers and other troublemakers are discussed. I called the Tennessee bar, the Florida bar (where they were once licensed) and the Arizona bar. Nothing. CnS, the most cordially hated abusers of the online community, have dropped off the face of the Internet.
It's a shame, really. CnS were ahead of their time. If they'd stuck around a little longer, they could have watched the Internet transform itself into a businessperson's wet dream, a resource ideally suited to buying, selling and hyping: the World Wide Web.
A TANGLED WEB
The Usenet is a great way to carry on a conversation, but conversations don't last forever. If you post to a newsgroup, your message might last a week or so before the group purges it from memory. But if you want to store something permanently on a newsgroup--like a FAQ, for example--you have to continually re-post it.
The World Wide Web was designed to permanently warehouse data. It was created in 1990 by European scientists to make the free exchange of information easier by doing two things: it created a new language called http, which standardized the way computers accessed information, and a new format called html, which ensured that incompatible computer systems could display the information properly.
Unfortunately, while the WWW was efficient, it wasn't very user-friendly. There were no pretty pictures, just a jumble of text. You couldn't use your mouse to move around--only keystrokes. It was like the difference between using DOS and working on a Macintosh. In short, it was a pain in the ass.
So there the Web sat: all that potential in a dull little package. Then in 1993, an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana decided he could do better. Marc Andreessen was working part time at the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications lab while he finished his degree. He sat down with seven other students, wrote a Web browser (a program for navigating the Web) named Mosaic, and began distributing it free over the Internet. Within a year, more than 2 million people were using the program.
Mosaic made the World Wide Web sexy. Instead of using a clumsy keyboard interface, you could point and click with your mouse to navigate the Web. Instead of screen after screen of scrolling text, there were pictures--bright, crisp, full-color photographs and illustrations.
Like the Usenet, the Web was a blank page waiting to be filled with anything its users were interested in. One fellow aimed a camera at his aquarium and regularly posted updated pictures on his Web site, creating the legendary Fishcam. Another guy broke his leg and offered visitors a chance to electronically sign his cast. There are innumerable Web sites featuring pictures of wives, husbands, kids, cats and dogs. Museums have posted pictures of their artworks. Libraries have posted downloadable copies of their books. Fan clubs for TV shows, movies, actors, bands and others flourish on the Web.
Soon the Web was swamped with information--good or bad, useful or pointless--but it was virtually impossible to find your way around. Say you put up a Web page chock-full of useful information about Star Trek. How were fellow Trekkies supposed to find it? Sure, you could post a notice to all the Star Trek newsgroups, but in a week or so, the posting would disappear.
Another way to get people to your Web site would be to ask related Web sites to create hypertext links connecting your site to theirs. That way, people looking at the Patrick Stewart Web site would be able to get to your site with a single mouse click. But they'd have to find the Patrick Stewart Web site first, and with the explosion of Web pages, users could wander around online for days.
Enter Yahoo. In April 1994, two graduate students at Stanford University started making lists of Web sites they thought were cool. But what started as a part-time hobby for David Filo and Jerry Yang rapidly developed into the one thing businesses interested in the Web needed most: a centralized directory where anyone could search for Web sites on any topic. Millions of users visit Yahoo each day, looking for the information they need among the 30 million sites Yahoo can access.
Once there was a way for Internet users to find the sites they wanted, it didn't take long before business looked at the Web and saw that it was good. By making it possible for data to be souped up with splashy graphics, Mosaic allowed businesses to create the digital equivalent of print ads; by providing an electronic directory, Yahoo ensured that businesses' sites reached their target audience. And, unlike the Usenet, no one minded if you advertised on the Web. Ads on the Usenet were intrusive, bogging down newsgroups and interrupting online discussions to the annoyance of all. But if a business wanted to advertise on the Web, it just put up its Web page and let it sit there. The only people who saw an ad had gone to the trouble of looking for it.
But the main reason businesses liked it was because the relationship between an online advertiser and its target customers was strikingly similar to the relationship that existed in the real world. In our consumer society, there is a stark line dividing those who produce goods and those who consume goods. On the Usenet, there is a fluid give and take, requiring users to contribute to the conversation as well as take away; this gave businesses the heebie-jeebies. But because the Web is designed to permanently store information, it took on a form businesses were was more comfortable with: a monologue. They talk, customers listen. They produce, consumers buy.
While businesses were lunging full speed onto the Web, other entrepreneurs were realizing there was money to be made by providing access to the Web, too. In April 1994, Andreessen was approached by Jim Clark, a former Stanford computer-science professor who had just left Silicon Graphics Inc., a $1.5 billion firm he founded 10 years before. Andreessen and Clark founded Netscape Communications Inc., recruited five of the students who had worked on Mosaic, and set about creating a slicker version. They released Netscape Navigator over the Net at the end of the year. The program has been wildly successful; the company recorded revenues of $131.1 million in the first half of 1996 and boasts that 38 million people use Navigator.
But the company has also drawn heavy fire. Some Netizens accuse that it wants to be the next Microsoft, the 400-pound gorilla of the online industry; Netscape employees dismiss the complaints. It is true, however, that Andreessen's priorities have shifted since college. As a student earning a measly $6.85 per hour in the NCSA lab, he looked at the Web and saw a chance to create a browser that would work better than any other existing program. Then, it was an intellectual challenge--a research project, if you like. Now, he's driven by other considerations: bottom lines, market share, dividends . . .
It's ironic that a couple of student research projects, nurtured in the business-free zone of the Internet, would become the gateway to the Net for thousands of companies. But it's hardly surprising. Mosaic, Navigator and Yahoo had one goal: to make the Web fun. And whenever people start having fun, business is poised to exploit them.
THE FIRST THING WE DO, LET'S KILL ALL THE LAWYERS
It was inevitable that all these people and companies pouring onto the Internet would alter it. Fueled by the hype of endless media coverage and by the relentless preaching of Al "Cruisin' on the Information Superhighway" Gore, the Internet became the latest hip trend, like martinis and cigars. Spurred by the superlatives in the media, more and more people grew interested in the Net, which made business even more intrigued by its commercial potential, which created more media hype, until what had been the province of fuzzy-headed, impractical academics became a giant, potentially lucrative snake swallowing its own tail. And, slowly by online standards but breathtakingly fast in the real world, the campaign to reshape the Internet began.
The spirit of cooperation was the first to go. It had already been weakened on the Web by Yahoo; instead of depending on links to similar sites, a Web page simply established a link with Yahoo and waited for users to come knocking. Now even Yahoo, which lists sites for free, is facing stiff competition from a similar company called Excite. Cooperation was replaced by competition, and the rules of Netiquette governing a cheerfully anarchic society were succeeded by litigation and legislation, as the moneyed interests in business and government sought to protect their own and bring the unruly Net under their control.
About a year ago, I wrote a story about how one Netizen got screwed over by the forces of online commerce. Scott Wessler was an employee of Quicksilver Software, an Irvine-based software company. He also had a Web page, partly because it was fun and partly because he was interested in becoming a Web consultant. The domain name (online address) he chose was transend.com, and he cleared it with InterNIC, the organization that keeps track of all domain names in use.
Unfortunately, Wessler didn't bother to spend a couple of thousand dollars for a trademark search, so when a Palo Alto-based software company called Transend Corp. started threatening him with a lawsuit if he did not immediately--right now! this minute!--sign over the domain name to them so they could start their own Web site, he was flabbergasted and a bit pissed off. But, since he was also penniless, he ultimately gave up the domain name and chose wessler.com as his new handle.
"This is really just an example of what's going on with the Internet," Wessler said. "For so long, it's just been kind of friendly and intellectual, and people sort of formed communities and no business was done, but now that it's being commercialized it's getting pretty ugly, pretty fast."
But Fred Krefetz, the president of Transend Corp., felt the correct way to avoid such disputes is for every Web user to perform a trademark search before choosing a domain name. "I think that's a very reasonable thing for them to do--just like when you're going to name a product or a company," he said. "I don't think even 15-year-old kids should register a name. If they want to register their personal names, fine, but when they start picking pseudonyms, I think they're opening themselves [to a trademark-infringement suit]."
I'd hate to see the battle that would ensue among all the John Smiths and Jane Does of the world.
At least the story ended pretty much happily for everyone. Transend Corp. has installed its Web site, which you can reach at transendcorp.com or transend.com. And while Wessler may have run smack up against the evil corporate empire online, he's now found work doing what he wants to do: he's designing a Web site.
ARE YOU A HAPPY NETIZEN?
As long as we're on the subject of evil corporate empires, let's talk Scientology. The Church of Scientology (CoS) has long been a sue-happy crew. In an oft-quoted paragraph from one of church founder L. Ron Hubbard's works (which the church has publicly disavowed), he strongly advocates lawyering people to death. "The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win," he wrote. "The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway . . . will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."
The CoS' most visible litigation in the past few years has revolved around the Internet, and has raised questions of copyright infringement and corporate responsibility in the electronic age. Most of the legal battles have been fought over the posting of secret church documents on the Usenet, specifically on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup. The CoS says it's concerned about the spiritual danger of revealing church secrets to those who are unprepared to see them. But it also comes down to money.
Hubbard founded the CoS in 1952. His teachings center on his belief that we are immortal beings called Thetans, who long ago had been blocked from remembering catastrophic events in history. His goal was to defeat those blocks and guide us back onto the correct spiritual path. These tenets are widely available in Hubbard's published works, but Hubbard also wrote about 700 pages over the course of 20 years called the Operating Thetan materials. The OT materials come in eight levels, which are revealed to church members only when they are spiritually prepared to accept the secrets the writings contain.
One of the snippets of OT doctrine that has made it into the public eye, summarized in a recent article in The American Lawyer, reveals that "75 million years ago, a galactic ruler named Xenu (sometimes called Xemu) banished to Earth (then known as Teegeeack) spirits called Thetans, which were implanted in volcanoes. The volcanoes exploded, and the Thetans invaded mankind, accounting for our ills." I don't know about you, but I feel pretty darn spiritually unready for that nugget of wisdom.
The CoS' concern about keeping their high-level doctrines hidden makes more sense when you look at the financial structure of the church. In addition to being spiritually prepared, you must be fiscally prepared to get a look at the OT materials. At the OT 1 level, it'll cost you a "donation" of a couple thousand bucks. The higher levels can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. In its early lawsuits, the CoS unsuccessfully argued that the damage done to them by someone leaking their OT materials was spiritual, not economic. But in 1993, the CoS convinced a San Diego judge that unauthorized use of their copyrighted materials caused them economic harm because they constituted a "trade secret."
The CoS' Internet battles over the past couple of years have focused on these issues of copyright infringement and fair comment. The alt.religion.scientology newsgroup has always been a cantankerous bunch. Current and former Scientologists, skeptics and neophytes argue blisteringly about points of church doctrine. The trouble comes when, in the course of discussion, users post church writings to bolster their points.
In late December 1994, a former Scientologist named Dennis Erlich re-posted an anonymous posting purported to contain OT materials with a brief comment verifying that claim. He rapidly got an e-mail from a CoS lawyer threatening retaliation for his unauthorized use of copyrighted materials. The church also warned Erlich's bulletin board service provider and the bulletin board's Internet access provider, a California-based company called Netcom. In February 1996, the CoS obtained an ex parte writ of seizure and, accompanied by police, spent seven hours searching Erlich's Glendale home and seized hundreds of computer disks and files, according to the L.A. Times. The church has since pursued several similar cases against Internet users and others who it claims have infringed on its copyrights.
The battle of Scientology vs. the Internet hasn't been fought solely in the courtroom, of course. The CoS' actions on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup confirm Brinkema's suspicion that the church is trying to silence its critics. The first salvo was fired in January 1995, when a CoS lawyer, Helena Kobrin, sent out messages to access providers claiming that the newsgroup was founded by a forged message and violated the CoS' intellectual property rights. She then asked the providers to cancel the newsgroup--possibly the most blatant act of censorship ever attempted on the Usenet.
Needless to say, the attempt failed, and Kobrin admitted in American Lawyer that it was naive. "We were not, at the time, sophisticated about the Internet," she said. "Somebody said, 'If there's a group, you can shut it down.' The group was started through forgery . . . and since the group was improperly formed, we thought we could cancel it. Obviously, we didn't accomplish that."
The CoS' scorched-earth policy may have failed, but they had other, more devious, strategies. According to a 1995 article in Skeptic, on Dec. 27, 1994, the mysterious censor known as the Cancelpoodle made its first appearance when it sent out a cancellation message for a posting from Erlich. Since then, the Cancelpoodle has canceled dozens of postings on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, largely targeting postings that are critical of the CoS--not just postings containing copyrighted material.
Some who denigrate the noble Cancelmoose's efforts to delete spam and Velveeta argue that Netizens are being hypocritical in cheering on the moose while attempting to bump off the poodle. But, as the Cancelmoose is careful to point out, it merely deletes duplicated messages, regardless of their content, and, in fact, it carefully saves a copy of each canceled message so that anyone who wants to read it can. The Cancelpoodle, on the other hand, specifically targets the content of postings critical of the CoS, thus effectively censoring discussions on the Usenet.
Entertainingly enough, the CoS' efforts to control the dissemination of its trade secrets only led to its teachings being more widely published on the Internet, as Netizens deliberately copied snippets of Scientology teachings to various places on the Usenet and on the Web, just to annoy the hell out of the church.
"It was like the sorcerer's apprentice," said former Scientologist Robert Vaughn Young in American Lawyer. "Every time they chopped it up, it reappeared. . . . It was just all over the place. Net people were delighting in the anarchy. The Internet is to Scientology what Vietnam was to the United States--no matter how much you bombed, no matter how much you attacked, it just got worse."
WHAT WE HAVE HEAH IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
The Scientologists, of course, were not the only people trying to control the freedom of expression on the Internet. Media coverage of the online phenomenon followed a well-worn path: build it up, then tear it down. Decree that Bill Clinton is a vibrant young candidate with a strong moral commitment, and then jump all over his slightest misstep in an attempt to disprove their "liberal bias." Dub Nancy Kerrigan a flawless princess, and then make snide comments about her romantic life and her distaste for Disney. Or, in this case, declare that the Internet is the most wondrous tool of mass communications ever created, and then write alarmist articles about pornography and child molesters besmirching the networks. This trend reached its height with a July 3, 1995 Time feature titled "Cyberporn." The cover showed a small child with his mouth open and his eyes riveted on a sinisterly glowing computer screen that was (presumably) introducing him to the world of online smut.
Where the media go, the politicians follow, and there's nothing a politician likes more than thundering about pornography and declining moral values. In June 1995, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment, crafted by Senators James Exon (D-Neb.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.), to the telecommunications bill. The amendment, known as the Communications Decency Act, made it illegal to knowingly transmit obscene or indecent material to a minor.
To his credit, Representative Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach) harshly criticized the amendment. "The language of the Senate bill will result in more, not less, criminal activity," Cox charged in an Editor & Publisher article. "Even the most aggressive policing will not be enough. The Internet is global. [The Senate bill] would simply be creating the illusion that government is protecting people."
There are a lot of reasons why the Communications Decency Act was as dumb as a stump:
1) Cox correctly pointed out that the Internet defies policing by one nation because it is available around the world. Say a person in Irvine downloaded pornography from a Web site housed in Amsterdam, or vice versa. In which country did the crime take place?
2) The language of the bill prohibited the transmission of "indecent" materials, rather than "obscene" ones, essentially applying to the Internet standards used for determining network TV broadcasts. But it takes more effort to get pornography on your computer than it does to order some adult pay-per-view over your cable box. Why not then apply at least cable TV standards?
3) Much of the pornography the Senate was moralizing about--child pornography in particular--is already illegal, for chrissake. Restricting its availability over the Internet could easily be done under current law.
4) With all the whining about unnecessary government interference these days, you'd think Congress would clap its tiny hands with glee at a private, nonbureaucratic solution to the problem of children being exposed to pornography. The fact is that blocking software is cheap, reliable and widely available, thus letting parents decide what their kids can and can't see on the Internet.
Regardless, the amendment passed, since politicians rarely pass up an opportunity to look self-righteous, and President Clinton signed it into law. In response, more than 2,000 Web sites displayed only a blue ribbon, similar to the red AIDS ribbon, on a black background. Their mourning lasted for two days.
Fortunately for the future of free speech in this country, a three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia ruled the Exon amendment unconstitutional on June 12 saying that its language was too vague and would restrict discourse on the Internet to a level acceptable to children. The Justice Department has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court has not yet ruled on the case. On the day of the judges' ruling, nearly 3,000 Web sites, which had been displaying big, dark question marks, showed exploding fireworks instead, celebrating the decision.
This, of course, was only the opening salvo in a war between anarchic Netizens and technophobic legislators. Apparently, the price of electronic freedom is eternal vigilance.
DESIRE, DESPAIR, DESIRE . . .
In 1993, scholar William Leach published Land of Desire, an analysis of the rise of the American consumer culture--that is, the shift around the turn of the century from emphasizing big industry, such as steel and coal, to emphasizing convenience goods aimed at individual buyers, such as clothes, books, furniture and appliances.
One of his most important points is that the shift required production and consumption to be separated in order for customers to consume without guilt. If you live in a small town, you know how much effort is required to sew a dress, bake a loaf of bread or fix a car because you live next to the seamstress, the baker and the mechanic. But if the clothes you buy have been made overseas in a sweatshop--as Kathy Lee Gifford discovered to her chagrin--then you can consume without guilt. A side effect of this separation meant that businesses could mold their customers into thinking of themselves as consumers rather than producers--as spectators, rather than participants, in life.
It's startling to realize that this shift took place only about 100 years ago because the consumer culture has been welded so firmly to our society that it has largely taken over everything. "Consumptionism," Leach wrote, "included another feature: compulsion to buy what was not wanted, the inescapable presence of business pressure, business manipulation of public life, and invasion of market values into every aspect of life." These days, you can't drive on the freeway without being assaulted by billboards. You can't watch a hockey game without seeing ads on all the walls of the rink. Businesses leave handbills on your car, come to your door, mail you pitches and call you on the phone. Emily Fogg Mead, an advertising expert and mother of Margaret, said in 1901: "The successful advertisement is obtrusive. It continually forces itself upon the attention. . . . Everyone reads it involuntarily. It is a subtle, persistent, unavoidable presence that creeps into the reader's inner consciousness."
It was Calvin Coolidge who said, "The business of the American people is business," and he was right. Capitalism has become so firmly welded to democracy in our country that any other way of organizing our economy--like, say, communism or socialism--is regarded at best as useless and at worst as treason. "What a waste," said the folks in Jamestown [CHECK], looking at the North American continent. "What an opportunity!" said the corporate boys in the natty blue suits, looking at the unplundered world that was the Internet.
As the Internet has evolved, it has been brought ever closer to a form ideally suited to commerce. The Internet's original structure was perfectly mated to the free exchange of ideas, cooperation rather than competition, and a reunion between consumption and production. But you can't go home again.
Herbert Hoover, a corporate shill if ever there were one, gave a speech in 1928 in his West Branch, Iowa, hometown praising the new consumption ethos. He said: "I have sometimes been homesick for the ways of those self-contained farms of 40 years ago as I have for the kindly folk who lived in them. But I know it is no more possible to revive those old conditions than it is to summon back the relations and friends in the cemetery yonder. . . . We must accept what is inevitable in the changes that have taken place."
I'm sure there will always be a place where diehard Netizens can continue to do what they want on the Internet, just as there is still public-access TV for those who wish to produce their own television instead of passively watching the networks' products. But I'm equally sure that their work, that offbeat charm that makes the Internet unique, will be drowned in the wake of millions of corporate dollars being poured into snazzy graphics and hyperelaborate Web sites.