Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Ugly Americans find new frontier on the Internet

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is author of”Turn Toward the Wind”and publisher of Religion News Service.)

UNDATED _ Who owns the Internet and whose values should dominate cyberspace?

By virtue of its origins and dominance, those of us who live in the United States tend to think of it as ours. But the Internet has no borders, which is what makes it so exciting to some and terrifying to others.

And even though the Supreme Court and the White House have recently weighed in on Internet regulation _ or lack thereof _ our ways are not necessarily the ways of the rest of the world. What plays well in this culture may not do so well when exported.

There are growing signs that the rest of the world is getting a little annoyed with America’s view of the Internet. Why should we make the road rules when the road extends into other countries? And how can we be so sure that the values of our culture will not offend or corrupt others?

An editorial in the July 5 issue of the Britain-based Economist magazine sees President Clinton’s call for minimal government intervention on the Internet as”cavalier”and”thrilling to American libertarians who see the Net as a sort of cyberian Wild West”.

But it questions the imposing of these standards _ or lack of standards _ on other cultures.

After all, look at what happened when we started exporting our TV shows to other cultures. Not only did we fill homes abroad with a dizzying array of trash and foolishness, but we also helped other cultures see Americans in an even worse light than they had before.

Now we are the Internet cops, which seems to some like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

Pornography, one of the biggest money makers on the Internet, will go largely unregulated. It can be downloaded in a country like Denmark, where viewing nudity is no big deal, as well as in Saudi Arabia, where it is a severely punishable act.

Blasphemy, an everyday occurrence protected by the First Amendment in this country, could bring the death penalty to a Muslim in a nation governed by Shari’a law.

Access to bomb-making instructions could topple governments or endanger U.S. citizens in countries with limited police protection.

These situations _ and more _ lead to mind-boggling ethical issues. The United States operates on a principle of checks and balances. However, when there are no checks, balance often disappears. And the results can be devastating to individuals who have been given free access to potentially destructive information.

We Americans need to get over our parochial view of the Internet and begin acting as if we understand its potential impact. We cannot make moral or ethical decisions for other cultures. Neither should we think that what is good for America is good for the rest of the world.