Fighting the Net Nannies

A new grassroots family group battles cyberspace censors.

As 1996 opened, the telecommunications bill before Congress was entangled in disputes between broadcasters, cable companies, telephone services, and consumer advocates. One thing appears to be settled, however: Any bill that passes will try to "protect children" by restricting information transmitted over the Internet.

At press time, legislators hammering out the bill's final language had agreed to criminalize making "indecent" materials available to minors over any interactive computer network. Anyone providing indecent materials or access to them could face fines of $100,000 and as much as five years in prison.

This attempt to regulate cyberspace has generated opponents beyond the usual free speech circles: A group of parents of small children who frequently use on-line media has launched Families Against Internet Censorship. They hope to demonstrate that Internet-literate families will not accept restrictions from the cybercops.

Colorado Springs computer scientist Barry Fagin and his wife, Michele, started FAIC. Parents of two young children, the Fagins recruited the first members by e-mailing people on lists of Brown University alumni and libertarian academics. Within a few weeks of founding the organization FAIC could list more than 50 families in 19 states (and France and Canada) as members. Before the World Wide Web, says Barry, "organizing a group like this would take an incredible amount of time. We're using the Web as an organizing tool to defend itself."

The Fagins want FAIC (FAIC@rmii. com) to become a resource for reporters who seek computer-literate parents critical of government regulation; a clearinghouse for information about software that parents can use to screen objectionable materials transmitted over on-line services; and, in the long term, an advocacy group that files amicus briefs when Internet restrictions are challenged in court. To join, you must have an e-mail address; have at least one child living at home; be willing to let FAIC release your e-mail address to sympathetic organizations; and be willing to list your name and home state on FAIC's World Wide Web page

Barry Fagin says his long-term goal is to effectively counteract "the inside-the- Beltway view that a vote against Internet censorship is anti-family."

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