Howard Rheingold's Affadavit in ACLU v. Reno



ACLU et al. v. RENO
(No. 96-963)

(No. 96-1458)  





Howard Rheingold, declares that:

1. I am a parent of an eleven year-old daughter, Mamie. My wife, Judy, and I recently celebrated our 28th anniversary. I'm an active PTA member, a small business owner, and a voter. My wife and I believe strongly that parents have an obligation to teach our children values, to give them the opportunity to make their own moral choices. We also believe that open communication among citizens, free from fear of government control, is what holds democracies together. 

2. I've written books about technology and its effects on people and institutions for the past ten years ("Tools for Thought," 1985, "Virtual Reality," 1991, "The Virtual Community," 1993). I write "Tomorrow," a column about the Internet and its effects, syndicated by King Features. I spend hours a day online, and have done so for ten years. I have a real life with real people around me as much as anyone else, but much of my business and social communication takes place online. For me, it's a real place, inhabited by real people who can forge deep bonds. 

3. I know from long personal experience that people can build communities from the relationships they grow online with other people who share their interests and concerns. The new medium that connects computers and communications networks transforms every desktop into a printing press and place of assembly, a component of community-building in technological society. An important part of civic life takes place there. In my view, communication among people, and the friendships and communities that form when people communicate with each other, represent one of if not the most important aspect of cyberspace. 

4. Among the many things left out of the distorted popular image of the Internet are people for whom the Net is a lifeline; the cancer support groups, the disabled people who find a new freedom in this medium, the artists and educators and small businesses who use the Internet as a way for citizens to publish and communicate to other citizens. Experience has taught me that many-to-many communication, used wisely, can magnify the power of individuals to discuss and make possible collaborative thinking among people all over the world. 

5. In my life, the virtual community became my real community. The people I first got to know in open, group conversation online have become my friends in the real world where real things happen to people. I sat with two people when they were dying, spoke at two funerals, danced at two weddings, passed the hat quietly among other virtual community members to help out a member in dire circumstance. The community I know takes place among people who matter to me, and online communication is what that enables thousands of geographically dispersed interest groups to build communities. For people who live in remote areas, who share certain special interests, from mathematics to politics to problems of being an Alzheimer's caregiver to the civic affairs of a small town or large city, to being a gay teenager in a rural area, virtual communities enable people to form associations that can enrich their lives and often carry over into face to face society. In modern society, it is often difficult to find people who share interests and values; the virtual community enables people to find and get to know one another and to establish relationships they might otherwise never have formed, relationships that often carry over into face to face friendships. Indeed, I know of many examples of people who met a spouse online. In other cases, online friendships, become intense and meaningful whether or not the people ultimately meet in real life. 

6. I grew so fascinated with the nature of online communities that I travelled the world, visiting virtual communities in Japan and Europe, as well as America. I interviewed the people who built the ARPAnet and grew it into the Internet. I interviewed the people who built the Minitel system in France. In both instances, these media for social communication were never intended for people to communicate in new ways. The ARPAnet was a defense-funded experiment in remote computing over telecommunication wires because it was necessary for the scattered ARPA computer researchers to run their data on each other's computers. The programmers who built the first network started using it for social communication. The early ARPA directors were wise enough to see that a new medium for group communication had emerged, unexpectedly. Minitel was designed as a distributed database, an electronic yellow pages, but people insisted on using it to chat. 

7. The emergency of "social computing" via the Internet is an example of people using a new tool as a means of human to human communication,and the medium of many to many communication is still in its infancy. People are not only building communities, but businesses, and political information and communication association. We have only begun to see the social and civic uses people will make of the emerging medium. As these examples show, the real virtue of cyberspace is its ability to permit and even encourage innovation. If strict standards had been set at the beginning, or if planners had insisted on one structure, and by either means prohibited the ARPA or Minitel from carrying email and other messages, one of the most vibrant and important parts of cyberspace would never have developed. 

8. The topics that people discuss online constitute an enormous variety. Every scientific specialty you could think of has its electronic mailing list, text archive, web site. Support groups for scores of diseases are especially important online. The online breast cancer or AIDS patients in a small town who don't have any other support group, the Alzheimer's caregivers and others who cannot leave the house or hospital, the disabled who find a liberating barrier-free space online, derive vital knowledge, comfort, and human connection for people in need. The nonprofit organizations that set up shelters for battered children and abused spouses can share their views and problems. The international networks of medical researchers who collaborate or cure disease can share information and frustrations. So many people will suffer tremendously if laws shut down Internet providers and unmoderated forums where nobody can guarantee that nobody will say a taboo word at some time. Some of these topics of necessity will involve speech that discusses "sexual or excretory activities or organs." In some cases, the people speaking or the people listening will be minors for who the information is important and useful. It would be a tragedy if fear of prosecution for failing to police the utterances of every member of a virtual community would lead to the closing of communities that alleviate suffering and help people cope with some of the difficulties of modern life such as life-threatening diseases or domestic violence. 

9. Several months ago, a very bright and articulate young man by the name of Blaine Deatherage sent me an e-mail questionnaire as part of a school project. I started an electronic correspondence. I learned, after I got to know him, that he was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, is confined to a wheel chair in near-total paralysis, and has trouble communicating vocally. I didn't know that. All I knew was that he had a lively mind and a way with words. Blaine and millions of others like him have no other place to go. He's only sixteen. To deprive him of adult conversation in the chess groups he participates in online would be a tragedy. If words such as "7 dirty words" are considered "indecent" or "patently offensive," the groups to which minors such as Blaine belong, even those where the subject has nothing to do with sex, such as the chess discussions, are likely to choose to exclude all minors rather than risk the consequences should an adult member of the community use a taboo word. 

10. Some people form MUD's or MUSE's, which are fantasy communities established an developed by the participants. These are the source of enormous creativity and are of particular interest to young people. I have been told of at least one such space, as a result of the Act, has set up methods to ban minors, including minors who participated in the development and creation of the space. Minors are being banned even when the discussions are not adult in nature because of an excess of caution on the part of adults in the space. 

11. The examples of community I've mentioned ar real people to me. When my long online friend and sometime online verbal opponent Tom Mandel grew fatally ill, he said goodbye online. The poignance of that experience, and the looks on the faces of Tom's online friends when I stood up for him at his funeral and gave a eulogy, are definitely real to me. When my online friend Casey needed an operation, enough of her online conversational partners bought posters from her to finance the medical procedure. When Kathleen Johnson announced that she was dying, dozens of us, including myself, took turns sitting with someone we had only known from the words we had read on a computer screen. When Isaac, a bright 15 year old member of the WELL community wanted to attend an excellent private school his parents couldn't afford, members of the WELL community raised enough money to pay his tuition. 

12. My daughter has used e-mail and the Internet for social communication and for researching her homework since she was eight years old. I told her that she needs to use common sense and be alert when dealing with adult strangers. If someone she doesn't know calls on the telephone, she knows not to answer personal questions. I told her that some people aren't who they pretend to be in real life and in cyberspace, and just because someone sends her e-mail, it doesn't mean that person is a friend. She knows the importance of nutritious food for her body, so I told her that she has to be careful to put nutritious knowledge into her mind, because the Internet consists of all kinds of mind-food, some of it not very nutritious. I told her that if anyone said anything to her or sent anything to her that made her feel bad or suspicious, that it was okay and a good idea to show it to mommy or daddy. 

13. When I wired up her fifth-grade class to the Internet, on a line donated by a local small Internet service provider, I told her class that they were pioneers. Although this was an affluent community, few of the fifth graders in the class had any real experience online. I told them there were wonderful ways to learn and communicate with interesting people on the Internet, and they were going to show the rest of the people in the school, the school district, the county, how you could help us use the Internet as a fun way to learn. I told them that if they were caught doing anything they wouldn't be proud to do in front of their parents, then the experiment would fail, and the other classes and schools would probably think Internet for fifth graders is a bad idea. But I also told them that I was showing them how to do this because I knew I could count on them to make the right decisions. They didn't fail me. 

14. Many people think cyberspace is just the World Wide Web and solely involves information retrieval. That is incorrect. As the ARPA and Minitel example illustrate, many if not most people who use cyberspace find the most important and most used parts to be those that facilitate many to many communication. Thus, I believe the most important parts are newsgroups, chatrooms, mail exploders, and the life. There are many different ways people around the world can use the network to communicate with each other. Many scholarly and scientific groups use an automated service that sends e-mail to everyone in the group of subscribers, who can automatically send their responses to everyone in the group. There is no human moderator who decides which e-mail to send to the group. People who participate in such groups generally regulate their behavior voluntarily. Bulletin board systems and conferences and newsgroups are different ways of organizing public group conversations where nobody is the moderator or editor. 

15. There are moderated groups where an expert in the field acts as editor, deciding which of the submissions are published. Moderators generally do not screen the membership; they only decide what is published. 

16. If the Communications Decency Act is enforced, all unmoderated sites will either have to go out of business or set up pre-screening to make sure only adults get access. Most unmoderated sites are non-profit. They have a volume of both participants and of messages that is too large and too widespread to permit prescreening. In addition, many unmoderated sites have been set up long ago and the person who set them up is no longer involved. Thus, there is no one around to do the screening. For these reasons, many of the sites would have to be totally eliminated. I fear that moderated groups won't fare much better. They also have so much volume that no moderator can screen each message and prescreen each subscriber. 

17. Even if a moderator could screen each message, I'm afraid that the standards of the Act are so vague that they won't know what to screen. 

18. I'm concerned about the difficulty of defining a "community standard" for a worldwide network. The way the Internet works, if a geographic standard is applied to everyone in US jurisdiction, it would have to be that of the most conservative place in the country. That would stifle the net, not only domestically, but globally. 

19. I am convinced that screening of sexual and other objectionable material can be accomplished with the kinds of software filtering that all major online services and several commercial companies have offered. I believe the power to determine what goes on or off the prohibited list of knowledge in my household should stay in the household. 

20. Probably the most important potential of the Internet is in community-building. People who are able to make contact with others who share interests, to continue conversations with people in other locations, of other ages, races, beliefs, and political persuasions, to get together with fellow citizens locally and nationally, are engaged in activities that are vital to the health of civic life and democracy. The richest communities that are formed are those that are the most diverse in these ways. I fear that a chilling effect on the use of online forums could damage these important activities. 

I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. 

Executed on March 26, 1996 

Howard Rheingold

Sign Up for Breaking News