THE ACLU’S NEXT BIG THING
I like the Internet. One could even say I make my living from the Internet. Well, one would be hard pressed to say that. But one could say that I make enough from the Internet to avoid getting rickets.
I think the web will have profound effects on the economy and the way we receive information. I think that many of the profound and interesting things that many of the profound and interesting people who blather on about the Internet are right. I buy all that stuff (cyber good, moveable type bad etc.) to one extent or another. But in the end, it’s just information and communication. Faster, better, more conducive to providing pictures of lesbians and goat love information and communication, but I and C nevertheless.
We have all sorts of rules about how we should regulate, liberate, speculate, and other words that rhyme with 8 about the Internet. The First Amendment says, “don’t post ‘Fire’ in a crowded chat room.” It also says that it is reasonable to keep young children from seeing things like coprophagic sex slaves in girl scout uniforms dancing the cha cha with Sumo wrestlers, or watching White House surveillance videos of the Oval Office — whichever requires less download time.
But I find most free-speech arguments incredibly annoying — mostly because people don’t understand that the “slippery slope” of censorship is as slippery as a cat’s tongue. So, that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about a much less controversial and tendentious issue: civil rights.
Let’s just cut to the chase: there is no connection between civil rights and access to the Internet, except perhaps the fact that both words appear in this sentence.
Yesterday, Steve Case, the chairman of the Internet company that kindly refuses to reveal the amount of porn I download, told an audience of civil rights advocates that access to online services will be “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” Now, stripped of its ulterior motives, this statement is quite simply as dumb as a hamster raised on lead paint chips. (Not least because we know that the civil right issue of the 21st century will be whether or not androids will be allowed to live longer than five years and whether defective robots qualify under the ADA).
The Internet is not that special. Sometimes I think that webheads really believe that if Intel could come out with only slightly better chips, human beings would be able to actually inhabit the Internet. Cyber life is to the 1990s as astral projection and past life experiences were to the sixties and seventies. People will still have to eat — even if they have a “fat pipe” connection to the web.
But more importantly, what is the big deal that rich (alas, I suppose) white people get to use it first? There’s no correlation between race and the ability to log on to AOL. And not even Jesse Jackson’s most disgruntled employee would think that being kicked off AOL for being “idle” was evidence of racial prejudice.
When the automobile first came down the pike — guess what? Rich people got to use it first. (Forget the automobile. When the wheel was invented rich people got to use it first.) I don’t know the numbers, but I will bet the price of a Special Olympics hamster that the percentage of disposable income required at the turn of the century to buy a car dwarfs the modest cost of getting on the web. When the steam boat, the carrier pigeon, the telegraph, the telephone, the pony express, the unicycle, the hot air balloon, or virtually anything else involved in communication (often transportation) and information came down the pike, did people say “Well, this is a civil rights issue because the Irish [or: blacks, Jews, Huns, Visigoths, Anabaptists, or Jutes] don’t have equal access to the technology just because they’re poor?” Probably. But they were also probably either A) idiots or B) making a venerable argument about income inequality — not civil rights, or C) both A & B.
To this day, I am outraged that as an upper-middle class dilettante of the Hebraic/German/Scotch Irish persuasion from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I have been denied access to the Concorde simply because the racist legacy of this country has deprived me of the ability to drop seven grand on an uncomfortable three hour flight to the land of the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys. No Justice! No Fleece!
But of course the reality is not that Steve Case or the civil rights establishment actually believes this is a question about race. This isn’t about black or white, but green (Cliché alert. If I ever seriously use the “This isn’t about black or white but green” again you people have my permission to spam me). The Left has mounted a campaign to wire the inner city for the 21st century, because that would transfer to them vast sums of still valid 20th century cash.
They argue that rich white suburban kids shouldn’t be able to leave the rest of America “behind” on the information superhighway. Computer companies know this is stupid, but they don’t mind the idea of the taxpayers funding their marketing. Vice President Gore touts the fact that he’s helped connect inner city schools to the Internet. Did these schools not have phone lines before 1993? Funny my school managed to call home every time I played hookie or failed a test — oh but wait I went to a privileged school. I guess the kids who went to the public school down the street had their report cards sent home by smoke signal.
Now, the FCC is about to approve the “Gore Tax.” A “user fee” which will appear on everyone’s phone bill. It’s stated purpose is to connect the remaining 30 percent of schools not currently bugging the bus driver to stop at Taco Bell on the information superhighway. The reality of course — and EVERYONE in Washington knows this — is that the billions are a direct transfer payment to the teacher unions and the bureaucrats who feed them.
As the Wall Street Journal points out this morning there are only three problems with the Gore Tax: 1) it’s illegal, 2) it’s undemocratic, 3) it’s stupid. But other than that it is among the finest policy proposals to come down the pike. According to the FCC, phone companies bill you for this waste of money. If you ask “Hey, what’s this crap on my bill?” They are barred by law from telling you. THAT is real censorship. The mere fact that the Constitution says taxes must start in the House of Representatives is irrelevant to Gore’s purposes for two reasons: this is a “fee” and this fee is going to help inner city kids download pictures of naked people.
Which of course brings up the issue of why kids shouldn’t be on the web at school in the first place. But that’ll have to be another column.
ONE PEEVED COUCH
One bit of interesting news. This is the first column I have written on my new, debt-financed laptop. This means I get to be out there when I write the File. My couch is eyeballing it like Ross Perot staring at a Mexican day-laborer coming over the border.