Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Speak Loudly and Carry a Flimsy Stick

It seems like only yesterday that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was disclosing "inconvenient truths" about the cost of health care; but actually it was closer to six months ago. These days he is attracting more attention for the war he is trying to wage against child pornography. While it would be hard to find anyone who would dispute the merits of such a war (at least if it were well waged), as Declan McCullagh pointed out this morning on his Iconoclast blog, it would be even harder to find any of us who remember when the Internet emerged from the network of gateways that sustained Usenet in approval of his methods:

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has found a novel way to shake down law-abiding broadband companies: accuse them of harboring child pornography and threaten to prosecute them unless they do what he wants. That might just happen to involve writing Cuomo a hefty check.

The latest company to be honored by Cuomo's personal attention is Comcast, which received a two-page letter on Monday threatening "legal action" on child pornography grounds within five days, if its executives failed to agree to a certain set of rules devised by the attorney general.

In the letter (PDF), the Democratic politico says he wants Comcast and other broadband providers to "volunteer" to take actions "surgically directed" only at child pornography and "not at any protected content." (He's targeting Usenet, the venerable pre-Web home of thousands of discussion groups that go by names like sci.math,, and comp.os.linux.admin.)

That might be laudable, if it were true. But Cuomo's ham-fisted pressure tactics already have led Time Warner Cable to pull the plug on some 100,000 Usenet discussion groups, including such hotbeds of illicit content as talk.politics and Verizon Communications deleted such unlawful discussion groups as us.military, ny.politics, alt.society.labor-unions, and alt.politics.democrats. AT&T and Time Warner Cable have taken similar steps.

I kind of like that phrase "ham-fisted pressure tactics." However, I have enough personal history to remember when our military talked about our method of "surgical strikes" during Operation Desert Storm. More importantly, I remember I. F. Stone's post hoc analysis of both the war and how it was reported, in which he pointed out that the Pentagon's semantics of "surgical precision" was a far cry from the sort of treatment you would want to receive on a operating table. This seems consistent with the semantics of Cuomo's "surgically directed" phrase.

As I see it, Cuomo has decided to deal with child pornography by going after the Internet with a big stick without giving much thought as to where he is swinging it. My guess is that this strategy will have little impact on the proliferation of child pornography in cyberspace. My fear is that Cuomo's actions will reawaken the dimwitted thinking of some of our more vociferous Internet evangelists on the subject of governance, running them once again into the brick wall of a failure to comprehend why governance is necessary in the first place. This could very well lead to a sort of "rhetorical arms race" over the pornography problem that could easily culminate in those eye-for-an-eye exchanges, which, as Gandhi reminded us, ultimately make the whole world blind.

Perhaps it would be better to view Cuomo's action as one of "chutzpah for show," giving him another crack at a spotlight that shines on more that New York. Thus, in the hope of encouraging him to sheathe this particular sword, I would like to placate him by offering him the Chutzpah of the Week award. Take it, Andrew. Treasure it. Show it off in your office, but stop trying to bash Usenet! As I continue to preach in my own evangelical streaks, Usenet taught us more about the true nature of "social software" than just about anything the Internet evangelists now promote with such vigor; and perhaps it could teach you a thing or two about how to moderate (if not regulate) the proliferation of child pornography through cyberspace (even on Facebook, if that investigation you launched last September is still active).

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