Censoring my Software
(From Datamation, 1 March 1996)
Last summer, a few clever legislators proposed a bill to "prohibit
pornography" on the Internet. Last fall, right-wing Christians made
this cause their own. Last week, President Clinton signed the bill,
and we lost the freedom of the press for the public library of the
future. This week, I'm censoring GNU Emacs.
No, GNU Emacs does not contain pornography, It is a software package,
an award-winning extensible and programmable text editor. But the law
that was passed applies to far more than pornography. It prohibits
"indecent" speech, which can include anything from famous poems, to
masterpieces hanging in the Louvre, to advice about safe sex...to
Naturally, there was a lot of opposition to this bill. Not only from
people who use the Internet, and people who appreciate erotica, but
from everyone who cares about freedom of the press.
But every time we tried to tell the public what was at stake, the
forces of censorship responded with a lie: they told the public that
the issue was simply pornography. By embedding this lie as a
presupposition in their statements about the issue, they succeeded in
misinforming the public. So here I am, censoring my software
You see, Emacs contains a version of the famous "doctor program",
a.k.a. Eliza, originally developed by Professor Weizenbaum at MIT.
This is the program that imitates a Rogerian psychotherapist. The
user talks to the program, and the program responds--by playing back
the user's own statements, and by recognizing a long list of
The Emacs doctor program was set up to recognize many common curse
words, and respond with an appropriately cute message such as, "Would
you please watch your tongue?" or "Let's not be vulgar." In order to
do this, it had to have a list of curse words. That means the source
code for the program was indecent.
Because of the censorship law, I had to remove this feature. (I
replaced it with a message announcing that the program has been
censored for your protection.) The new version of the doctor doesn't
recognize the indecent words. If you curse at it, it curses right
back to you--for lack of knowing better.
Now that people are facing the threat of two years in prison for
indecent network postings, it would be helpful if they could access
precise rules via the Internet for how to avoid imprisonment.
However, this is impossible. The rules would have to mention the
forbidden words, so posting them on the Internet would be against the
Of course, I'm making an assumption about just what "indecent" means.
I have to do this, because nobody knows for sure. The most obvious
possibile meaning is the meaning it has for television, so I'm using
that as a tentative assumption. However, there is a good chance that
our courts will reject that interpretation of the law as
We can hope that the courts will recognize the Internet as a medium of
publication like books and magazines. If they do, they will entirely
reject any law prohibiting "indecent" publications on the Internet.
What really worries me is that the courts might take a muddled
in-between escape route--by choosing another interpretation of
"indecent", one that permits the doctor program or a statement of the
decency rules, but prohibits some of the books that children can
browse through in the public library and the bookstore. Over the
years, as the Internet replaces the public library and the bookstore,
some of our freedom of the press will be lost.
Just a few weeks ago, another country imposed censorship on the
Internet. That was China. We don't think well of China in this
country--its government doesn't respect basic freedoms. But how well
does our government respect them? And do you care enough to preserve
If you care, stay in touch with the Voters Telecommunications Watch.
Look in their Web site http://www.vtw.org/ for background information
and political action recommendations. Censorship won in February, but
we can beat it in November.
Copyright 1996 Richard Stallman
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