Censoring My Software

Last summer, a few clever legislators proposed a bill to “prohibit pornography” on the Internet. Last fall, the right-wing Christians made this cause their own. Last week, President Clinton signed the bill. This week, I'm censoring GNU Emacs.

No, GNU Emacs does not contain pornography. It's a software package, an award-winning extensible and programmable text editor. But the law that was passed applies to far more than pornography. It prohibits “indecent” speech, which can include anything from famous poems, to masterpieces hanging in the Louvre, to advice about safe sex … to software.

Naturally, there was a lot of opposition to this bill. Not only from people who use the Internet and people who appreciate erotica, but from everyone who cares about freedom of the press.

But every time we tried to tell the public what was at stake, the forces of censorship responded with a lie: They told the public that the issue was simply pornography. By embedding this lie as a presupposition in their other statements about the issue, they succeeded in misinforming the public. So now I am censoring my software.

You see, Emacs contains a version of the famous “doctor program,” a.k.a. Eliza, originally developed by Professor Weizenbaum at MIT. This is the program that imitates a Rogerian psychotherapist. The user talks to the program, and the program responds—by playing back the user's own statements, and by recognizing a long list of particular words.

The Emacs doctor program was set up to recognize many common curse words and respond with an appropriately cute message such as, “Would you please watch your tongue?” or “Let's not be vulgar.” In order to do this, it had to have a list of curse words. That means the source code for the program was indecent.

So this week I removed that feature. The new version of the doctor doesn't recognize the indecent words; if you curse at it, it replays the curse back to you—for lack of knowing better. (When the new version starts up, it announces that it has been censored for your protection.)

Now that Americans face the threat of two years in prison for indecent network postings, it would be helpful if they could access precise rules for avoiding imprisonment via the Internet. However, this is impossible. The rules would have to mention the forbidden words, so posting them on the Internet would violate those same rules.

Of course, I'm making an assumption about just what “indecent” means. I have to do this, because nobody knows for sure. The most obvious possible meaning is the meaning it has for television, so I'm using that as a tentative assumption. However, there is a good chance that our courts will reject that interpretation of the law as unconstitutional.

We can hope that the courts will recognize the Internet as a medium of publication like books and magazines. If they do, they will entirely reject any law prohibiting “indecent” publications on the Internet.

What really worries me is that the courts might choose a muddled half-measure—by approving an interpretation of “indecent” that permits the doctor program or a statement of the decency rules, but prohibits some of the books that any child can browse through in the public library. Over the years, as the Internet replaces the public library, some of our freedom of speech will be lost.

Just a few weeks ago, another country imposed censorship on the Internet. That was China. We don't think well of China in this country—its government doesn't respect basic freedoms. But how well does our government respect them? And do you care enough to preserve them here?

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If you care, stay in touch with the Voters Telecommunications Watch. Look in their Web site http://www.vtw.org/ for background information and political action recommendations. Censorship won in February, but we can beat it in November.