A specter is haunting cyberspace -- the specter of e-vandalism.
Media alarms have been loud recently: 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.
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.