The conventional wisdom regarding the Internet appears to have changed practically overnight. Once championed as a wonderful Information-Age tool to “empower the individual,” the net is now more likely to be denounced as an iniquitous network of right-wing conspiracy theorists and former Luftwaffe pilots.

I would be the last person to peddle a gospel of salvation through technology, as we hear all too often from the Tofflers. But it is important to acknowledge that the Internet and the World Wide Web have been a tremendous boon for right-wing activists across the country. An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) spokesman was correct to remark that the net has made “a radical change in their ability to reach out and organize.”

Indeed, no other system could have linked up so many thousands of people across the country who are deeply alienated from the permanent regime in Washington but have no way to communicate with one another. Leaders of grassroots movements nationwide have been able to make valuable contacts with like-minded men and women, and have gained access through the World Wide Web to a virtually limitless source of information of interest to right-wing activists.

If past experience is any guide, we should not be surprised if efforts to censor the Internet begin to grow. We recently witnessed the fanaticism with which liberals pushed the so-called Fairness in Broadcasting Act, a measure that attempted to force left-wing radio talk shows on the benighted Middle Americans who have made right-wing radio so spectacularly popular. For every Rush Limbaugh, there would have to be a Mario Cuomo.

The left can hardly be expected to go easier on the Internet than it did on the relatively innocuous Limbaugh, and indeed sentiment in favor of federal regulation has already begun to spread among Washington elites. The pretext for massive federal oversight of the net is child pornography, but alarm bells should go off every time Janet Reno claims to be looking out for the welfare of children. We have learned all too well what that means.

To our north, the process of criminalizing cyberhate is already under way, and without the appeals to the well-being of children that have disguised federal intervention in the United States. Last June, representatives of Canada’s Simon Wiesenthal Center demanded legislation that would define the Internet as a form of broadcasting, and thus place it under the purview of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). More specifically, the Wiesenthal Center called for legislation that would criminalize the promotion of hatred via computer media. “Hatred,” like “diversity” and “sensitivity,” is a former English word that has been transformed by the Orwellian doublespeak of the therapeutic state, and whose broad scope appears to include any political position to the right of Bob Dole.

Under the Wiesenthal plan, the government would not itself censor the net directly. Instead, it would make net providers liable for the content of the data that passes through their system. One observer rightly noted that such an arrangement would be akin to holding Bell responsible for the content of conversations that take place over their phone lines. Nevertheless, Canadian public officials have proven sympathetic to the idea. In August, the Canadian Chiefs of Police Association called for government control of the Internet in order to crack down on “hate speech” and seditious speech. Herb Gray, Canada’s Solicitor General, suggested that one solution “might involve some type of international convention or agreement where countries would come together to control the Internet.” Such a strategy might be able to “halt the electronic transmission of hate literature into Canada via the Internet.”

On the bright side, there is reason to believe that any prospective federal regulation of the Internet is already too late. The net has already facilitated too many personal friendships and institutional connections among thousands of people and organizations that had never known of each other’s existence before going online. And with encoding programs like PGP widely available even now to ensure telecommunication privacy, regulation efforts may indeed be futile.

Undaunted, the FBI and the Justice Department have proposed the installation of a device called the “clipper chip” ill every telephone and computer, which would make possible an enormous and unprecedented program of government eavesdropping. This is all to fight terrorism, of course.

But the American public is not that stupid. Such obnoxious efforts to monitor the activities of law-abiding citizens can only exacerbate the very alienation from the present regime that led to rightwing activism on the Internet in the first place.