As a strange new medium, the Internet’s true nature is difficult to grasp. Is there anything special or uniquely valuable about it or is it simply being over-hyped. Could the Net even be dangerous—to children, for instance, by exposing them to unsuitable material?

We see and hear endless media reports, some favorable, some not, on this subject. Millions are exploring the Net for themselves with enthusiasm, while others wait behind on the on-ramp, often with fear and loathing. The Internet has entered into our cultural consciousness as an object onto which we project our hopes and fears. This fundamental ambiguity is nowhere more clearly on display than in the issue of right speech, an ancient Buddhist application of the principle that human sanity as well as social harmony calls for communication that is honest, helpful, clear, and wholesome, rather than deceptive, coercive, and harmful.

Free speech advocates see the Net as creating a radical decentralization of power and authority, especially compared with the increasingly concentrated ownership of mass media. The Internet enlivens the spirit of the First Amendment and enables many new voices to be heard. It thrives on discussion of the undiscussable.

Since it is relatively easy and inexpensive to create a presence on the Internet through the Worldwide Web, the power of the mass media to act as gatekeepers is sharply checked. Anyone can publish and anyone can enter the public discussion. On this view, the Internet represents a triumph of the democratic spirit.

On the other hand, critics see the Internet as a haven for smut, particularly child pornography. They argue that the Internet exposes children to harmful influences from which they must be protected. Therefore, it is a social responsibility to make sure speech is properly controlled.

The recent passage of the Communications Decency Act contains sweeping provisions that sharply limit allowable content on the Internet by prohibiting any kind of indecent content. Historically, courts have given a wide scope of interpretation to indecency, construing it more in terms of offensiveness than obscenity. Conceivably, prosecutions may take place for open dissemination and discussion of information about abortion and birth control, or even the espousal of political views that offend someone, somewhere. All this is being done, say the CDA’s proponents, in the name of protecting children, who would be better served by measures that stemmed the flow of guns into our schools and communities.

The CDA represents a major victory for the forces of censorship and control, but one that is not being taken lying down. The struggle over this particular provision will now head to the courts for a challenge on constitutional grounds. While this may be extreme, such oppositions are not at all uncommon. Much of the day-to-day discussion in Internet newsgroups, including ones devoted to Buddhism, is frivolous, uninformed, antagonistic, divisive, and even abusive. It only fills the airwaves with static, to no fruitful purpose.

It is quite obvious that much or even most of the content of talk.religion.buddhism fails to pass a commonsense interpretation as “right speech” in the sense defined in the Noble Eightfold Path, where right or impeccable speech appears prominently alongside right action and right livelihood. Should it therefore be shunned or even banned? An advocate of free speech would argue that protecting the right of individuals to be obnoxious is a small price to pay for preserving the rights of the rest of us. A dharma teacher whose sexual predilections are under attack might direct his students otherwise.

Free speech and right speech don’t seem to line up on the same side. Is it possible to honor one without dishonoring the other? More broadly, what is the middle way between insisting on protecting rights at all costs or engaging in pernicious forms of social control?

This is a subject of central concern to the Dalai Lama. In an important new body of work, His Holiness has begun to emphasize the importance of developing a secular ethic that, while obviously greatly informed by a Buddhist perspective, can be applied by nonreligious persons everywhere. In it, the Dalai Lama is clear in regarding democratic government—which respects the dignity of the individual and is based on the possession of universal rights—to be essential, yet incomplete by itself.

What is needed is an equally deep commitment to universal responsibility. Such responsibility cannot be legally mandated but must come from the recognition of our mutual interdependence and through the development of compassion. His Holiness says this is not a job for Buddhists alone, but for everyone.

This is challenging, of course, as the development of compassion requires more commitment and is a much more involved process than passing a new law as a quick fix. At the same time, it shows us that engagement in politics is not a dead end in itself, but part of a larger responsibility to heal ourselves and the world. That is why the Dalai Lama exhorts Buddhists to contribute to others rather than convert others. To the extent that our words issue from our taking greater responsibility for the well-being of all, the gap between speech as practiced on the Net and the ideals of right speech will spontaneously narrow.

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