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E Vandalism Intrudes on Right to be Heard


Norman Solomon

A

specter is haunting cyberspace — the specter of e-vandalism.

Media

alarms have been loud in recent days: Electronic commerce is under siege. A

virtual crime wave threatens to wreak havoc on the World Wide Web. Any site is

vulnerable, no matter how big.

Let’s

not bother to shed tears for the likes of E Trade, Amazon.com and Buy.com.

Sympathy seems misplaced for massive outfits that are blights on the Web as they

strip-mall every pixel in reach. And I can’t summon much empathy for the

targeted website run by the Time Warner subsidiary CNN, a cable giant with

millions of viewers every day.

But

at the same time, even when electronic attacks occur against corporate sites

with little or no socially redeeming value, I won’t cheer for cyber-saboteurs.

Efforts to censor or block communication are odious — whether based in

government offices, corporate suites or secret hacker locations. What we need is

not less but more speech: and especially more diverse speech.

Predictably,

officials in Washington responded feverishly as FBI anti-hacking squads moved

into action. The aggrieved firms were mostly huge players in e-commerce and mass

media, accustomed to always reaching large numbers of people. So, the

cyber-disruptions were egregious. "We are committed in every way to

tracking down those who are responsible," Attorney General Janet Reno told

a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Top

law enforcers are eager to catch the culprits who interfere with the

communication systems of well-capitalized enterprises. But there is no search

for clues as to why millions of Americans are excluded from big media if they

happen to be poor. What about their right to be widely heard — via TV, radio,

major print outlets or heavily trafficked websites?

The

muzzling of voices that lack corporate backing is so routine that we do not

expect to hear them in the first place. And no official in Washington declares a

commitment to "tracking down those who are responsible." We don’t see

any investigative units rushing to probe the constraints on the freedom of

low-income people to be heard.

If

it’s going to provide nutrients for the flowering of democracy, speech can’t be

bottled up. In this country, just about everyone has freedom of speech, at least

in a narrow sense. But what about freedom to be heard?

Tacit

censorship is especially bad for those who live inside the nation’s jails and

prisons. As a practical matter, the nearly 2 million people behind bars in this

country rarely have direct access to the public’s eyes or ears. We don’t expect

to see them exercising their First Amendment rights on television or hear them

expressing their views on the radio, or see their websites for that matter. Yet

America’s prisoners have freedom of speech — they can always talk to the walls.

"The

most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech," the Greek

philosopher Diogenes remarked about 24 centuries ago. He neglected to mention

freedom to be heard.

In

the here and now, theoretical assurances about freedom of speech are presumed to

suffice. Politicians mouth the requisite platitudes. Generally, we nod in

agreement or nod off in boredom.

Facing

the wrath of corporate America and government agencies, the insurgent hackers

now making headlines are living dangerously. Their slight interference with the

rights of corporations to be widely heard is a definite no-no. Too bad we

haven’t been able to summon such outrage against the social order’s continual

interference with the rights of poor people to be heard by the public.

In

effect, a price tag is dangling from the First Amendment. Those with deep

pockets enjoy its full freedoms in news media. Those with empty pockets are

pretty much beside the point; the constant blocking they face creates no

headlines and sparks no vows of remedial action from Washington’s movers and

shakers. Just another typical day in the media neighborhood.

"The

law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep

under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread," the writer

Anatole France commented a century ago. Today, the media terrain offers a

similar kind of equity.

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