Where public cyberspace exists, how can and should it be used? Do the customs and laws that govern physical public space still make sense in this new context?
As usage of the Internet and commercial online services has grown, there have been increasingly frequent disputes that have tested the limits of acceptable behavior in electronic public places and raised the question of how these limits might reasonably be enforced. In April 1994, for example, some particularly thick-skinned lawyers from Phoenix spammed the Internet by indiscriminately spraying a commercial advertisement for the services of their firm into thousands of newsgroups. 38 This blast of unwanted bits had the same effect as driving a blaring sound truck into a public park. The Internet community reacted with outrage and disdain, and flamed back tens of thousands of complaints. One of the unrepentant perpetrators proclaimed his right to be a pain and threatened to do it again. Eventuallyto cries of "censorship!" from some quarters-a young Norwegian programmer wrote and unleashed an effective piece of "cancelbot" software that sniffed out and automatically removed the offending advertisements wherever they showed up. 39
In another widely publicized incident that unfolded almost simultaneously, a graduate student at MIT was busted by the FBI for operating an Internet bulletin board that had become a very active site for illegal activity -much like a bar in which drug deals were going down. Copies of commercial software were being posted, then downloaded without payment by users who logged in from all over the world. Was the operator of this openly accessible place responsible for knowing and controlling what was going on there? Or could he rightfully claim that it was just none of his business?
Like the proprietors of shopping malls and Disneylands, the operators of commercial online services must struggle with the inherently contradictory nature of the semipublic places they create. On the one hand, these places need lots of paying customers to support them, so they have to seem as welcoming, open, and inclusive as possible. On the other hand, though, the operators want to stay in firm control of what goes on. (The question is often framed as one of whether these services should be regarded as common carriers, like the telephone companies, and therefore not responsible for any libelous, obscene, or criminal information that they might carry or whether they should be in control and therefore held responsible like book and newspaper publishers and television broadcasters.) The last time I peeked at Prodigy, for example, I found the following notice from the management (a bit like the "Do not spit" signs that used to appear in railway stations): "And please remember that PRODIGY is for people of all ages and backgrounds. Notes containing obscene, profane or sexually explicit language (including descriptions of sexual acts, and whether or not masked with `x's and the like) are not allowed. A good test is whether the language in your note would be acceptable at a public meeting."
Prodigy explicitly aims at a family audience, so it remorselessly enforces the norms of Middle America. 40 Its competitors Compuserve and Genie have different sorts of constituencies, but their operators also take care to remove messages they consider obscene or illegal. And America Online has shut down some feminist discussion forums because, according to a spokesperson, kids might see the word "girl" in the forum's headline and "go in there looking for information about their Barbies." 41 The excluded feminists might be forgiven for responding in not-for-prime-time language. And forget the `x's. These places have found a useful role to play, but don't mistake them for genuine, open-to-all, watch-out-for-yourself spaces for unconstrained public discourse.
Some institutions are even more restrictive. My daughter's high school treats its corner of public cyberspace as a schoolyard where teachers enforce discipline. When the kids first got e-mail addresses, they were asked to sign contracts banning "sexually explicit speech." Then, when the inevitable happened, and some students complained about receiving obscene messages, the e-mail system was temporarily shut down as punishment.
But then, there will always be a Berkeley! The Berkeley Community Memory system is a radical political invention-a transposition of the Free Speech Movement and People's Park into cyberspace. 42 All information on the system is community generated, postings can be anonymous, and no central authority controls the content of postings. Funding is decentralized as well: there are coin-operated terminals on which postings can be read without charge, but it costs a quarter to post an opinion and a dollar to open up a new forum.