Where are the Soviets when we really need them?

While spending on science research is not currently popular, we might remember that the United States benefited greatly from the “space race”, not from “Tang”, but from the impetus it gave our electronics and computer industries, in which we became world leaders from the early 1960’s on.  To be usefully projected into space, an object needed to be small, durable and light, creating the need for solid state electronics, which are the basis for all modern electronic devices.  (A cell phone based on vacuum tubes would be rather unwieldy!)  Another area in which government spending (cold war) had a major impact is the Internet, which grew out of ARPA, and which has become one of the most trans-formative technologies in human history.

The space race was triggered by the USSR launch of an artificial earth satellite – Sputnik.  We had the opportunity for another Sputnik moment in 1973, when we first felt the impact of being dependent on imported oil.  Such a moment did not occur, and two generations later, we are even more vulnerable, and still hesitant to properly use the tools of science and engineering to achieve energy independence.

Free Speech protected from Child Online Protection Act

Having no better way to morn the sixth anniversary of the invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq, I decided to attend  the ACLU program March 19, 2009, at the CWRU School of Law, on “Civil Liberties and Internet Censorship”, with guest speaker Chris Hansen,  who is  Senior National Staff Counsel, ACLU.

He began his presentation:  “We may be in the middle of academia, but I’m here to talk about sex!”, which got the attention of at least one audience member.  Mr. Hansen led us through a trail of litigation which began when the ACLU decided to challenge the Communications Decency (CDA) act, which was based on the principle of indecency which came from TV/radio. ( see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_Online_Protection_Act) . In general the principle has been to allow anything in books, but to restrict TV/radio.  But what about this Ínternet’  thing?

Mr. Hansen told us that the ACLU decided to challenge parts of the law, but started with no knowledge of the either the  Internet or the World Wide Web.  They made progress on both technical and legal fronts, and won a landmark case: Reno vs. ACLU, and COPA is dead – long live free speech.

He also covered the Children’s Internet protection Act (CIPA, see: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.html), which states, among other things, that libraries and schools – which accept federal funds – must protect children from indecency on the Internet.  This law raises a number of issues, and requires a number of definitions: it has been challenged, but is still in place.

Mr. Hansen is a very accomplished speaker, and the event – for those fortunate to attend – was both enlightening and entertaining.

In the post presentation reception held in the lobby, I engaged the speaker on a point that I find curious: Justice Potter Stewart said – of pornography – “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”  In 1933, however, the Hon. John M. Woolsey, ruling on Ulysses (by Joyce): “…my considered opinion, after long reflection,  is that…nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.  “Ulysses” may, therefore be admitted into the United States.”

I asked him: “Weren’t there objective standards in place before Stewart made his clever observation? “.   “Yes”, he replied, “it was clever, but it was wrong”.