Free speech suffers a case of the cyber shakes

Friday, June 30, 2006

Are you losing interest in your health and appearance? Not getting enough sleep? Are you spending more time alone and getting less exercise? Not eating right?

Careful, you could be suffering from IAD, or “Internet Addiction Disorder,” described in a recent issue of the journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care by Diane Wieland, a psychiatric nurse and professor of nursing.

Other symptoms of IAD (an alternative term is “Pathologic Internet Use” or PIU) listed by Dr. Wieland: dry eyes, carpal-tunnel syndrome and repetitive-motion injuries. It also can cause “psychomotor agitation and typing motions of the fingers” — that is, “cyber shakes.”

Apparently, it can also cause marital infidelity.

Dr. Wieland is not the only medical expert warning of the hazards of uncareful interaction between humans and computers. Dr. Kimberly S. Young, described as the “world’s foremost Cyber-Psychologist,” writes and speaks extensively about this modern-day threat and has written a book that purports to help you recognize Internet addiction and provides a strategy for “recovery.”

That can include cognitive behavioral therapies, psychotherapy and medications such as antidepressants, as well as family and marital counseling or joining a support group.

Now, whether you believe that the Internet ranks right up there with drugs, alcohol and gambling as grave threats to our collective and individual health, it is yet another nagging concern that is creating yet another addiction: the craving to regulate the heck out of that virtual monster.

Nowhere is that uncontrollable urge more prevalent than among local, state and federal lawmakers. Since the arrival of the Internet, they have worked to regulate access or filter its content in schools, libraries, government agencies, private offices and homes. While the courts generally have restricted the reach of these restrictions, they have been more receptive when they were enacted in the name of the children.

“When it comes to topics conducive to political speechifying, few compare to the volatile mix of the Internet, sex and children,” writes Declan McCullagh, a journalist who covers such issues for C/Net’s News.Com.

Right now, McCullagh and others report, Congress is awash in proposals for cleansing the Internet of pornography, gambling and other social ills. Some would target businesses, Internet service providers, search engines and peer-to-peer networks. Tools would include Web-site blocking devices, eavesdropping, more and longer data retention by ISPs, a rating system for chat rooms, allowing private organizations to subpoena ISPs, and “bots” that would search out and destroy illicit content.

Earlier this week, the Senate Commerce Committee inserted into a communications bill a requirement that operators must put warning labels about “sexually explicit material” on their Web sites and rate each page or screen that does not contain such material or face felony prosecution and up to five years in prison.

In the House, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, would like to deputize government bureaucrats as official censors, who could “immediately terminate” Web sites without waiting for courts to determine whether they are indeed illegal.

Locally, many schools, worried about privacy and predation as well as racy content, are searching for ways to regulate or restrict access to social-networking sites popular among young people, such as MySpace. They also are monitoring students’ personal blogs and punishing them for postings that run afoul of school rules.

A lot of people spend a lot of time online — millions of Americans use the Internet regularly. There is a lot to access; the volume and variety of content is stupefying. Some of that content exhilarates, some of it repels. The vast bulk of it empowers in definite but unpredictable ways.

What is predictable is the urge to control this engine of enlightenment by those who don’t trust adults to decide for themselves or their children what is appropriate. This unrelenting frenzy of regulatory proposals is hard evidence of our fear of the corrupting nature of the Internet. Now, we are advised, we must fear its addictive nature, also.

Here’s a far worse addiction: that of government officials to exploiting legitimate concerns and suffocating with unnecessary regulation one of the most liberating and democratizing technologies to come along since the advent of the printed word.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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