This article appeared in Spectator newspaper, January 26 - February 1, 1996.

Censorship in Cyberspace

by Liz Highleyman

Sex in Cyberspace

Since the inception of the Internet in 1969, people have found ways to put electronic communications to sex-related uses. Today, an estimated 30 million people have access to the Internet and as many as 14,000 a day join online services such as American Online (AOL).

In my 10 years online, I've seen its sexual content evolve from the puerile ramblings of nerdly young men with too much time on their hands to sophisticated multimedia offerings satisfying almost every sexual proclivity. If you're seeking online sex, there are many avenues to persue. You could join one of the many public or private mailing lists dedicated to sexual topics. For a more interactive experience, you could use IRC (Internet Relay Chat) for net sex -- the high tech equivalent of phone sex. If you like group interaction, you could try one of the many chat rooms available on AOL. If you're more adventurous, you could explore a MUD or a MUCK, multiuser fantasy environment in which characters, for example, anthropomorphic animals, interact with each other -- interaction that may well include "tinysex." Or you could check out the new star of the Internet, the World Wide Web, where you can read or hear erotic stories, view explicit pictures and animations, or even procure a sexual service from an enterprising cyber-sex-worker. If you want to sample myriad offerings, you could scan the more than 200 sex-related Usenet newsgroups, which offer discussions and images on a wide range of topics:,,, Unless, that is, you happen to have an account with Compuserve, Inc. On December 27, that service summarily denied access to these newsgroups to its customers worldwide due to complaints from a prosecutor in Germany. While German law has no jurisdiction in the U.S., Compuserve felt that it was more expedient to deny all of its four million users access to the "offensive" newsgroups than to risk losing its 200,000 or so German customers.

Censoring the Net

Germany is not alone in its attempts to control what adults can see and post online. As with every communications medium in the past, no sooner do people begin to use a new technology for pleasurable purposes, than prudes and censors follow closely behind trying to stop them. Members of the the U.S. Congress, egged on by right-wing religious groups such as the Christian Coalition, are among the chief culprits.

In the Spring of 1995, Senators James Exon (D-NE) and Slade Gorton (R-WA) introduced -- and the Senate passed 84-16 -- the Communications Decency Act (CDA, S.314), an amendment to the Telecommunications Reform Act which would make it a crime to use a telecommunications device to "make available any indecent communication...comment, request, suggestion, proposal, or image" to any person under 18 years of age. The Exon amendment also held liable service providers and system operators -- the equivalent of requiring telephone companies to monitor for illicit content all calls that cross their wires. The CDA would give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) jurisdiction over the Internet and would impose prison sentences and fines of up to $100,000.

In the House, several members denounced the CDA, including speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) who called it "a clear violation of free speech rights." This past summer Representatives Christopher Cox (R-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act (HR 1978), an alternative to the CDA that would have prevented the FCC from regulating online communications in favor of parental control; the House passed this amendment 420-4. Given the disparity in the House and Senate proposals, it fell to conference committees to decide on compromise language. On December 6, a House conference committee, by a slim vote of 17-16, approved wording proposed by Henry Hyde (R-IL) that is as strict as the Senate's CDA. This amendment would make it illegal to "intentionally communicate by a [minor] any material that...depicts or describes in a patently offensive way, as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs'' (the classic indecency wording).

The concept of "community standards" has little meaning in the borderless realm of cyberspace, as the recent Compuserve actions amply demonstrate. Since material sent over the net may be read anywhere, the standards of the most conservative communities can be applied to liberal areas like San Francisco. The proposed law would make the Internet and online services the most heavily regulated communications medium in the U.S., and would make it illegal to post in a chat room or on the Web the same material that one can publish in a newspaper or read aloud in public.

Suffer the Little Children?

Imagine you are reading one of the many sex-related mailing lists on the Internet or participating in a discussion in an AOL chat room. You encounter another user who you find quite attractive. Perhaps the two of you decide to engage in a more intimate conversation in a private chat or e-mail exchange, and find that you have some intriguing common interests. The messages you send back and forth become increasingly steamy and explicit. You describe what you would like to do to each other in glorious detail: how you would touch each the other those touches make you feel. Perhaps you get so turned on that you end up masturbating to a satisfying climax. Harmless adult fun? Not if the government has its way.

Because it is impossible to know who might see what on the net, you can't be absolutely sure that a person under 18 will not come across your words. Sexually explicit material does not leap unbidden from the reaches of cyberspace, and a young child is extremely unlikely to stumble upon a private conversation. But just as a resourceful horny teenager can find ways to get their hands on a copy of Penthouse magazine, it is possible that they will find ways to eavesdrop on your intimate interaction.

The Internet censorship frenzy is part of a general moral panic about the corruption of children (see "In the Name of the Child," by Layne Winklebleck, Spectator, November 10-16, 1995). A July 3 Time cover story on "cyberporn" labelled the net as "popular, pervasive, and surprisingly perverse," and went so far as to assert that 83% of online material was sexually explicit (based on a "study" by a Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate that was later proven groundless). Child pornography, and giving pornography to children, is already illegal. For all the chilling effect that net censorship would have on interactions among consenting adults, it would do nothing to prevent the victimization of children.

Interactive media is different from broadcast media in the power and flexibility it gives users to control what they see. Parents can use filtering software such as SurfWatch and Net Nanny to regulate what their children can access, while leaving other material available for adults who want it; online services such as AOL and Compuserve already provide this capability. Yet such technological solutions may prove dangerous as well. This summer SurfWatch received a barrage of protest when they included non-sex-related gay sites in their list of banned material; Compuserve's recent cancellation encompassed several non-sexual gay sites as well, including a support forum for gay and lesbian youth. Who wouldn't shudder to think what might be found "objectionable" by a typical sex-phobic parent?

What is Indecent?

The indecency standard in the CDA and the House amendment is much broader than the court-defined obscenity standard. Obscenity has a specific legal meaning -- including that the work taken as a whole has no serious literary, artistic, scientific, or political value. Indecency, on the other hand, is open to case-by-case interpretation. In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled that indecent material cannot be banned, and that prohibiting indecency to protect minors is an unconstitutional infringement on the free speech rights of adults (Sable Communications v. FCC).

Material likely to be deemed indecent on the Internet and online services includes the so-called "seven dirty words," books such as Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterly's Lover, and Howl, depictions of nudity, discussions of sexual abuse and abortion, and safer sex and AIDS prevention information. AOL recently went so far as to ban the word "breast" from user profiles, enraging members of a breast cancer support forum (a move for which the service later apologized).

Taking a look at my own Web home page, you can find several potentially "indecent" or offensive items: references to AIDS/safer sex prevention work, including a pamphlet that describes the safety of specific sexual acts; pointers to books and articles about bisexuality, contraception, and reproductive rights; and information about the Cuir Underground website, which is focused on SM and fetish-oriented sexuality but does not include explicit stories or images. That website includes pointers to several other alternative sexuality sites, and as the "WebMistress" providing the links, I could potentially be held liable for the content of any of them.

Many online users, aware of the Internet's long tradition of "anarchy," point out that the government cannot possibly prosecute every violation of an online indecency law. While this is no doubt true, the consequences for those who are prosecuted will be severe, and this will have a chilling effect on all online expression, as users censor their own speech to prevent the government from doing it for them.

Efforts to Stop Cyber Censorship

Anti-censorship activists have been far from silent in the face of Congress' proposals. Several groups have joined the fight against the legislation, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (; 415-668-7171), the Center for Democracy and Technology (, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Californians Against Censorship Together (CAL-ACT), the Libertarian Party, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the National Writers Union. On December 6 the ACLU vowed to challenge the legislation in court. "Congress' proposals violate the First Amendment and privacy rights of adults to communicate freely in the online environment...[W]e will have to turn to the courts to uphold free speech in the promising new medium of cyberspace," said ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt. Online political columnists, human rights groups, sexuality researchers, and AIDS/safer sex educators have already offered themselves as potential plaintiffs.

The final version of the telecommunications bill must now be voted on by the full House and Senate. It appears that this vote will occur shortly after the legislators return from their holiday recess on January 22. Both the restrictive CDA and the liberal Cox-Wyden amendment were co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican, proving that online censorship does not follow typical party lines, and making it hard to predict how legislators will vote. Clinton has expressed reservations about other aspects of the Telecommunications Reform Act, and it is unknown whether he will veto it. There is still time to contact your senators and representatives to express your opposition to online censorship.

At a December 14 anti-censorship rally in the heart of San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch -- which drew over 500 people, many carrying signs reading "Uncle Sam Out of My Homepage" -- author Howard Rheingold reminded the crowd that "[this] isn't just an issue for a bunch of geeks in San Francisco. We have to do what the religious right has successfully done...organize and communicate, talk to your parents, friends, neighbors....[T]hose who are afraid can be educated."

Today, the question asked by many online users is: If they can't regulate what I read in print, how can they regulate what I read on the net? Tomorrow, the question asked by legislators and the religious right may well be: If it's not allowed on the net, why should we allow it in print?
Liz Highleyman is assistant editor of Cuir Underground newspaper.

© 1995, Liz Highleyman
22 December 1995