Welcome to the first "real" installment of Beyond the Web, what is planned to be a regular column in AMPlus concerning anime and the Internet. (Due to extenuating circumstances, what ran in this space last issue I do not consider a "true" Net column.) I have been active on the net in one capacity or another since 1987, and been involved with rec.arts.anime, the Usenet newsgroup and "granddaddy" of anime net resources, shortly after its inception in 1988. I coordinate the end-of-year r.a.a. Who's Who in Net Anime Fandom Poll (currently running in its fourth year, click here to send e-mail for more information, plug, plug) and have moderated "Anime Online" panels at Anime Expo, Katsu Con Ichi, and AnimEast. Assisting me at times will be Stephen Pearl, moderator, former AnimEast Programming Director, keeper of the r.a.a. FAQs, and general all-around r.a.a. "resident kami".

A Different Kind of Blue Anime

"any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

-- the definition of "indecency" as specified in the Communications Decency Act rider to the Telecommunications Bill of 1996.

As any veteran to the Internet knows, the dreaded "Death of the Internet" has been solemnly predicted for years. As the Net has grown, as newsgroup readership has exploded and signal-to-noise ratios rocketed, as FTP sites have shutdown due to increased traffic, as the frequency of IRC netsplits increases due to the surge in participant volume, as business opportunists of every stripe jump on the Net bandwagon and junk e-mail multiplies, so have the harbingers of doom repeatedly heralded the downfall of the Net.

So, is it hyperbole to vociferously proclaim that the current time represents the greatest threat to the Internet ever? Sadly, this time the threat is real, for it is not mere traffic or bad netiquette that is on the march (although, they too continue to increase), but it is the strong-arm of government intervention, a perennial anathema to the Net community, that stands not only to curtail the free exchange of ideas, but also, whether it is its intent or not, to alter the very nature of the Net as a free form forum.

Last Thursday (8 Feb), President Clinton, to much media fanfare, signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996. But, for one insidious element, this in itself was not a requisite "bad thing". The deregulation of cable industries and local phone companies would open the possibilities of a new array of Net services. And remote locales served by "one horse" service providers would welcome the potential competition offered by cable and phone.

Unfortunately, though, a small rider, little-known to the general public, all the rage across the Net, known as the Communications Decency Act of 1995 also became law with the rest of the Act. In the name of "protecting children," the CDA would open to prosecution any purveyor of "indecent" material, as defined above. Of course, no politician wants to be seen as against the protection of children. So, with wide bipartisan support and over the clamor and protest of the Net community, the CDA passed easily in both houses of Congress. In the name of scoring cheap political points, the CDA's proponents chose to ignore the fact that distribution of pornographic and "obscene" materials to children has always been illegal on the Net, no different from regular mail or retail considerations. Worse, by broadening the scope from "obscene" (Obscene materials as specified in the 1973 Supreme Court decision Miller v. California are not considered protected speech under the First Amendment.) to "indecent," the CDA could impose restrictions on a wide range of topics from art (such as anime!), health, and science forums that have almost nothing to do with sexually prurient or scatologically offensive material.

In response, Voter Telecommunications Watch launched its "Thousand Points of Dark" campaign, a 48 hour mourning period representing the "Death of the Internet". No doubt, any recent Web surfer has run across the wide array of blackened pages. (Our pages are not blackened due to design considerations and the fact that this Issue will come to press after the 48 hour period of mourning expires.) In the same vein, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is inaugurating a long term "Blue Ribbon Campaign to Promote Free Speech Awareness on the Net".

We leave the question of how pervasive this threat is to the general Net media; after all, the focus here is still anime and manga. But, it doesn't take too much thought to realize what this could mean to the Net anime community. As any anime fan knows, we are constantly fighting the perception of anime as just "sex and violence cartoons from Japan". The marketing techniques of certain companies like Manga Video in Europe and AD Vision/Soft Cel, combined with irresponsible and ignorant articles from outsiders (such as Newsweek's or the countless drivel from a particular LA Times View editor) have certainly not helped our cause.

But, it is not just the glaringly obvious titles like Urotsuki Doji or anything from AD Vision's Pink Pineapple library. For nudity (and therefore what some would call "indecency") is not a cultural stigma in Japan as it is in North America. Indeed, Ranma, hardly a sexually explicit series, derives a large portion of its humor from nudity and near-nudity. And since the target audience for anime outside of Japan remains mostly male, very few licensed titles here do not include at least one instance of, to borrow a term from Trish Ledoux, "courtesy breasts". (Quick: Name ten titles that do not include any female nudity.) Even "chaste" series like Aa! Megamisama or Maison Ikkoku have their share of "fan service," albeit very small.

Is it, therefore, exaggeration, to claim that virtually the entire commercial anime industry is threatened? Skeptics would say no, pointing to the fact that the CDA's bounds stop at the US border. But, the US role as a world leader often extends to technological and cultural influence, and if the "land of the free" can wantonly restrict free expression on the Internet, who is to say that other countries, with lesser freedoms to begin with, will not follow suit?

In some ways, this has happened before, but on a much smaller scale and with no threat of retribution. Earlier this decade, the National Science Foundation, in what some would call a veiled attempt at censorship, began cracking down on "non-research related material" at university and educational FTP sites. There were no stringent penalties (By contrast, a CDA violator could face a fine of up to $100,000!) other than threat of shutdown, but numerous anime FTP "H-archives," such as the one at the old Venice (which was originally based at Ohio State University), vanished from countless US-based sites in less than a week, only to be resurrected weeks or even days later at a number of European sites in France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The NSF example demonstrates exactly what is wrong with this mentality to "regulate the Internet". The Internet is not owned by the US government any more than it is owned by the phone companies or the German government or the Japanese government. The Internet crosses international boundaries and it is just as easy to retrieve "indecent" materials from a site in the US as it is to retrieve them from a site in Europe.

But, looking outside of the US is hardly a solution. While certain netters would rant against the conservatives (Over four hundred representatives voted yes; clearly, not all of them were conservative Republicans.) in Congress, let us remember that the first real salvo against computer networks was launched by CompuServe in response to a request by the German government. Ironically, though, CompuServe's hasty action and subsequent recant spells the alternative to CDA regulation. CompuServe, under fire for denying access to adult-related newsgroups to all its subscribers, was forced to retreat and approach their problem from a different angle. The result is a solution which reinstated access to all non-German subscribers and left the restriction in place for German sites. And it is all done with software! No German government intervention necessary.

This is the same approach that needs to be taken to oppose the CDA. By shifting the terms of the debate from "protecting children" to government intervention, and focusing on software-based solutions that rely on individual responsibility, CDA opponents can return the emphasis to the free speech issue where it belongs. Last year, California congressman Chris Cox (R-Irvine) sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to the House version of the CDA which ultimately failed. But, the other few CDA opponents, including Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who blackened his senatorial office Web page, and liberal bugbear, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has called the CDA "unconstitutional," promise not to let this issue die.

The EFF has promised to file a lawsuit today (12 Feb) citing unconstitutionality under the First Amendment, and the presiding judge has commended the EFF's presentation and promised to restrain prosecution before an almost guaranteed injunction. But, an injunction is just a "quick fix". It is not a solution. It is borrowed time, time which should be spent working toward the repeal of the CDA. Show your support by placing a Blue Ribbon on your own Web pages and seek further information from both the EFF and VTW Web sites.

-- Roderick "Agitator" Lee []