If you want to know why the Web is a medium of the young, if you want to see for yourself the revolutionary potential of the Internet to transform politics, connect the disconnected, tell the truth, build new kinds of community, and give voice to the voiceless, check out Peacefire.org.
Peacefire is a revolutionary space where teenagers from all over the world can gather to form a political community, share values, fight for political rights, and support and defend one another from continuous assaults on their freedom, judgment, and dignity by journalists, politicians, some parents, educators, and some members of organized religion.
Interesting in its own right, Peacefire has to be seen in context to be truly understood. It was created and grows against the surreal, manipulative, and profoundly dishonest discussions about morality and the young that take place every day in mainstream media and politics in the United States.
In l995, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse counted more than 3 million reports of abuse and neglect of children in America. It also counted 1,215 reported fatalities, more than three a day. According to an article by Dale Russakoff in the current issue of The New Yorker, the same three characteristics are overwhelmingly associated with these deaths - single parenthood, poverty, and substance abuse. These figures are not widely known, nor have they been widely reported.
In contrast, to my knowledge no child has ever been killed directly or indirectly by the Internet - yet it is almost impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine or watch a newscast without being confronted with a warning about the Internet and threats to children's safety, from child pornographers to kidnappers and seducers, bombmakers, hate-peddlers, cultists, or sexual predators.
The young live in an irrational world, where outside dangers are continuously invoked as an excuse to curb their freedom, curtail their choice, control their lives, and deny them even the most minimal basic freedoms.
In that context, Peacefire is a landmark, a new kind of media community. The Web site was founded by Bennett Haselton in August, l996 - he was 17 at the time, and is now 18 and a junior at Vanderbilt University, majoring in math and computer science. The average age of Peacefire's roughly 650 members is 16.
There is no equivalent of Peacefire anywhere in traditional journalism, where the young are invisible and are routinely demonized as decivilized, ignorant, and wanton. Journalism's notion of appealing to kids is weekly supplements with cartoon cutouts, wash-off tattoos, and NFL stickers.
But if the young are voiceless in mainstream journalism, they can have power and voice via new technologies like the Web. Their voices are all over Peacefire - in fact, their voices are what make up Peacefire - and they make a lot more sense than almost any of the people who talk about them in the guise of protecting their moral lives.
Haselton founded Peacefire because the embattled anti-censorship groups existing on the Net were slow to grasp the implications of the "quick fix" censorship blocking systems (like Cybersitter, Net Nanny, and Cyber Patrol) on freedom of speech and the lives of minors.
Many free-speech advocates on the Net initially either tolerated or endorsed blocking software in an effort to appease media and political critics, and to quiet mounting hysteria about the dangers facing kids online.
Peacefire had no trouble grasping the implications of blocking software on minors, probably because its members feel its effects more directly than anyone else.
Peacefire points out, for example, that if you download a page containing the phrase "gay rights," Cybersitter will delete the phrase and fill in the space with surrounding words. Cybersitter also blocks the Web sites of the National Organization for Women, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and The Penal Lexicon, a British-based Web site dedicated to raising awareness of prison conditions in Great Britain.
Cybersitter blocks Peacefire, too, and threatened to sue the site last December.
Peacefire gives embattled kids one of the first places they can go to for help and support.
A 15-year-old member of Peacefire who lives in Alabama contacted the Web site because he was blocked from the gay-rights section of Yahoo while researching an English project in his school library. Because the URL he typed in contained the words "sex" (in the middle of "bisexual"), he was given this message instead: "This Page Blocked By Cyber Patrol."
The assignment was to research topics for persuasive speeches, and as he was the only one in his class with experience using the Web, he stayed in the library computer area to help his peers. One of them was researching a speech on gay and lesbian rights.
His experience is a perfect example of the noxious nature of blocking software.
All other pages in this category were similarly blocked, he reports.
He approached the librarian and invoked the First Amendment, but was told that since this was a school library, the First Amendment didn't apply.
Stop for a second and consider this story. A high school student is sent to the school library on assignment. He is neither apathetic, addicted, nor isolated. He was researching topics for persuasive speeches. He voluntarily offered his own expertise and time to help other students use the Web. He isn't playing videogames or looking for pornography. He is advancing educational goals and, in the process, giving generously of his time.
The blocking software the school has installed apparently doesn't permit the researching of any topics involving sex. It doesn't ask him to explain what he is doing, or request the intervention of a teacher or adult. It simply denies him access to information he needs and is entitled to see. He is subsequently told that basic freedoms extended to every adult American don't apply to him or his classmates. Free speech, he is being taught, is only free when Cyber Patrol says it's free.
It's hard to imagine a more invasive or demeaning experience, or a more immoral message. The idea that this kind of blocking technology protects the young or enhances their morality is repugnant and absurd. Blocking software, not books and ideas, should be banned from libraries and schools.
This 15-year-old's experience brings vividly to mind the writings of J. M. Coetzee, a South African writer and censorship scholar. It applies to the young as well as to older people:
"Working under censorship is like being intimate with someone who does not love you, with whom you want no intimacy, but who presses himself in upon you. The censor is an intrusive reader, a reader who forces his way into the intimacy of the writing transaction, forces out the figure of the loved or courted reader, reads your words in a disapproving and censorious fashion."
Perhaps the real significance of this disheartening anecdote isn't just that it speaks to the humiliating and demeaning treatment inflicted upon even the most responsible teenagers, but that the student had - almost surely for the first time in his life - a place to take these concerns.
Peacefire not only provides him with a community, but also with information on disabling censorship technology; the history of individual blocking programs; legal rights and precedents; writings, arguments, and rulings relevant to free speech and the rights of children in the digital age; and anti-censorship graphics to download and display.
Journalism has little interest in free-speech issues as they relate to children's rights, since they are much too absorbed in transmitting hysterical warnings about cyber addiction and Net pornography. The president of the United States and most of Congress made their sentiments clear by passing the Communications Decency Act, which would criminalize hundreds of thousands of teenagers by making it a federal crime for them to talk about their sex lives, real or imagined, online.
Peacefire refutes the persistent libels of the young as stupid, disconnected, and too weak-minded to make rational judgments for themselves. It demonstrates the radical political potential of the Internet to connect people in communities, who previously had no way of communicating with one another.
Communities are more powerful than individuals. They are sprouting up all over the Web, creating with them new kinds of political realities and opportunities. For the young particularly, the opportunity to come together to talk about the real moral issues they face in their lives is nothing less than miraculous.
Peacefire also underscores the still unrealized potential of the Net to
transcend ignorance, repression, and dogma. To tell the truth, and pass it
along, right over the heads of the very many people who always have and
always will prefer to block it rather than face it.