April Fools or Real Life?

Excerpted from The Hill on The Net: Congress Enters The Information Age

In March 1994, an acquaintance forwarded to me an E-mail message he had received from a mailing list to which he subscribed.  The message referred to a column by John C. Dvorak that appeared in the April 1994 issue of PC Computing magazine, and described a legislative effort under way in the United States Senate.

In his column Dvorak described Senate Bill 040194, a bill “designed to prohibit anyone from using a public computer network (Information Highway) while the computer user is intoxicated”, and also make it illegal to “discuss sexual matters”.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy and co-sponsored by Kennedy, was crafted by members of Congress who know so little about computer networks that they think the “Info Highway” is an actual road.  The column reported Senator Pat Moynihan asking “if you needed a driving permit to ‘drive’ a modem on the Information Highway!  He has no clue what a modem is, and neither does the rest of Congress”.

One ominous result of the bill was the FBI’s plans to conduct wiretaps “on any computer if there is any evidence that the owner uses or abuses alcohol and has access to a modem.”  A new law enforcement group called the Online Enforcement Agency was said to be placing want ads soliciting wiretap experts.

With strong support from Baptist Ministers and no member of Congress willing either able to understand technology or “come out and support drunkenness and computer sex”, the bill was on the fast track to passage.  Readers were told they could register their complaints with Ms. Lirpa Sloof in the Senate Legislative Analysts Office, whose “name spelled backwards says it all.”

I would have probably found the column to be more amusing had I not been frustrated at how it had chosen to pick Senator Kennedy as a target.  But the last thing I’d expected was that anybody could actually believe it to be true.  I did have the advantage of certainty.  I knew this story was not true.  And there were plenty of clues in the story itself to help reader reach that conclusion.  The title, “Lair of Slop”, is an anagram for April Fools.  At the end of the column, “Lirpa Sloof…Her name spelled backward says it all.”, April Fools.  And the bill number itself, 040194, a date, April Fools Day.  But even these clues did not prevent a large number of people from believing it.  It didn’t take long after PC Computing hit mailboxes and newsstands before the first calls and E-mails began arriving in Kennedy’s office, followed shortly by faxes and letters.  The offices of the other Senators mentioned in the article also started hearing from outraged constituents.

I was surprised that people could believe the story, but my surprise grew even more when people I knew personally and who knew of my efforts to put Senator Kennedy online told me of their concern over this bill.  Even Jonathan Gourd, sysop of North Shore Mac, the BBS on which Kennedy’s online efforts had begun, posted a message to his system encouraging readers to contact Congress and protest this bill.  The whole tale was taken as fact by an even wider audience after initial messages of alarm, posted by people who’d read and believed the article, convinced many others of the Senate’s evil intentions without them having had the opportunity to read the story and perhaps catch the clues for themselves.

It was apparent that this story had the potential to become an “urban legend” of the Net.  Just like other oft retold and wildly inaccurate stories such as the one about the proposed FCC modem tax or the dying boy who wanted Get Well cards, the Senate’s Information Highway Drunk Driving Bill was proving to be a tale with legs that could rapidly traverse the Net.

In an attempt to prevent Dvorak’s column from spawning another net legend, I posted an explanatory message (with the article included) to the ACE groups mailing list and encouraged readers to repost it where appropriate to help prevent the rumor’s spread.  This message did get around and was reprinted in the widely read RISKS-FORUM Digest among other places.  On March 30 a brief article about the hoax appeared in the Washington Post.  These efforts seemed to work, calls from concerned constituents decreased.

In late October I received an E-mail message from a gentlemen who described himself as a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and an Internet user.  He wrote that he had read the article and was concerned about this bill.  Explaining passionately why he felt the bill was wrong, he offered his own expertise to Senator Kennedy as a scientific consultant to help prevent such misguided legislation.  I e-mailed him an explanation and by that afternoon he’d sent a note expressing his own embarrassment at having missed the clues and believed the story.  He was the last person I heard from on the subject.

In the year following Dvorak’s April Fools stab at the Senate, the Senate passed the Digital Telephony or wiretap bill.  It’s purpose is to protect the government’s ability to eavesdrop on the Information Superhighway.  In June 1995 the Senate passed the Communications Decency Act, a bill sponsored by Senator Exon of Nebraska, an effort to “clean up” the dark alley’s of the Internet and make them safe for children.

I have a much better understanding now of the people who didn’t see the humor in John Dvorak’s April Fools joke.  Ironically, Senator Leahy has been the Senate’s most outspoken advocate for protecting the Net from misguided and damaging government intrusion, and not the sponsor of such as Dvorak’s column made him.  Kennedy and Moynihan, both made out as ignorant of the Net in the article, were actually both among the 16 Senators to oppose the Exon bill when it came to a vote in the Senate.