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Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age, Mike Godwin, Times Books, 1998, ISBN 0-8129-2834-2, $27.50, 333pp.

I started off a review of a Bruce Sterling novel with a statement of¬†full disclosure, so I must do the same here–even more so. Mike is a¬†long-time friend from when I lived in Austin, Texas. He knew me, as¬†they say, when. After my disastrous first year at the University of¬†Texas, he helped me identify the classes to take that would awaken my¬†interest (including Shakespeare¬†at Winedale). Mike grilled me on my¬†reading critically, forcing me to be able to talk about books on¬†a level besides enjoyment. He was also the organizer of the Dull¬†Men’s Club, a regular meeting group for argument and drinking that¬†often became similar to the Austin BBS Users Reading Group. Yes, I¬†think it safe to say that he was, and still is, a friend.

As he explains his history in this book, Mike was in the right place¬†at the right time interested in the right things. Mike’s interest in¬†electronic communication and constitutional law and his journalistic¬†background all brought him to the attention of Mitch Kapor, who made¬†his money with Lotus when they were known for a spreadsheet called¬†1-2-3. Kapor was forming a think tank to work on his pet project,¬†the rights of people on the electronic frontier. This group eventually¬†became the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and Mike Godwin was¬†hired as its first employee to be its legal counsel.

Nearly ten years later, the world has changed. The EFF has been part¬†of some historic court battles and media frenzy and Godwin was there¬†at each step of the way. In Cyber Rights, he explains these issues¬†by giving you his personal history and his involvement. I can’t¬†think of too many other people who could have written a book like this¬†(although Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown comes close; Bruce,¬†however, was never so intimately involved in his non-fiction). Mike’s¬†background as a journalist keeps this from being a snooze, even when¬†the legal hair-splits start looking like a bad day at Supercuts. If¬†anything, some people may be turned off by his relative informality.¬†I thought it actually helped, by showing that these are not dry issues¬†that only lawyers and civil libertarians can love. Mike is¬†passionate that the future of our society lies in the battles we are¬†fighting today regarding what we can and can not do on the Internet.

What freedom are we talking about? Those guaranteed to you in the First Amendment, specifically freedom of the press, where the Internet is showing itself to be a new medium, just as radio and TV were earlier. In radio and TV, this freedom was abridged because of the issues of access to a limited spectrum. The Internet, however, is almost limitless, even more so than newspapers and publishers, who heretofore have enjoyed the full benefit of First Amendment protection. The issues that come up in these debates include: libel, pornography, privacy, marketing, and copyright. The Internet has changed the ground rules on all of these, yet most legislation and court cases have tried to link the Internet to older traditional media (likely due to our legal practice of using case law precedents), whereas Godwin feels that a new media, a new press, requires different interpretations.

I liked this book so much that I spent part of last semester¬†designing a composition unit around the book and a writing assignment¬†that would use Godwin’s issues as a baseline to discover how things¬†have changed since he finished the book at the end of 1997. I did¬†not realize when I designed the unit that I would get a chance to put¬†it immediately into practice, but circumstances have enabled me to¬†teach two months of a freshman composition course this next semester¬†on “Writing in a Technological Age” and we’ll be tackling Godwin’s¬†issues in February (in March, we’ll be looking at Geoff Ryman’s¬†Internet novel, 253).¬†I went by the bookstore earlier this week¬†and noticed that I’m not the only teacher who is requiring this¬†book; a professor in the School for International Studies is also¬†using it as a text.

Okay, you’re likely not one of my students, so you aren’t required¬†to read this book, so why should you? If you use the Internet for¬†business or pleasure, the topics discussed herein are directly¬†applicable to your continued use of this resource. Godwin¬†explains in simple terms why you should be concerned, what the¬†difficult issues are, and what things are being overblown by¬†Chicken Littles. If you’ve been following these issues closely,¬†this is a good summary; if you don’t know what I’m talking about at¬†all, this is your introduction.

[Finished December 1998]


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