From Issue 2.3 - December 1995/January 1996

Book Burning on the Electronic Frontier

By Liz Highleyman

As the Internet and commercial online services grow, so too do efforts to control the content of material that travels over the Information Superhighway.

In Spring 1995, Sen. James Exon (D-Nebraska) introduced the Communications Decency Act (S.314), an amendment to the telecommunications reform act that 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..." Since it is impossible to know who might see what on the net, all sexually explicit communication is suspect. The bill potentially includes both the originators of explicit material and the operators of sites through which it might pass. The CDA passed the Senate 84 to 16 (Feinstein and Boxer supported the bill).

The CDA came amidst a moral panic about online child pornography. One recent "scandal" concerned a boy who left his home in Washington state to visit San Francisco at the behest of a supposed pedophile he met on America Online (AOL). It later turned out that the SF man was a teenager himself and the boy was probably a gay teen seeking a reprieve from his conservative parents. A July 3 Time magazine cover story on "Cyberporn" labeled the net as "popular, pervasive, and surprisingly perverse" and went so far as to assert that 83% of online material was sexually explicit. It implied that net-smut leapt unbidden onto the unsuspecting young netsurfer's screen or might be stumbled upon accidentally.

There is a perception that free speech has fared better in the House than the Senate. In June, Reps. Christopher Cox (R-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act (HR 1978) which would prevent the FCC from regulating the Internet or commercial on-line services, proposing instead software that would allow parents to block objectionable material. In August the House passed the measure 420 to 4; however, late in the session and with little notice or debate, the House also passed an amendment that makes it a felony to make sexually explicit materials available to persons under 18. Newt Gingrich has taken a stand against the CDA, labeling it as overly broad and probably unconstitutional.

At this time the House and Senate are meeting to decide on a compromise telecommunications reform bill. Now is the time to urge legislators to support Cox-Wyden-style legislation over Exon-style censorship. Both the Exon-Coates and Cox-Wyden bills were co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican, indicating that the issue of online censorship does not follow traditional party lines.

Outside of the telecommunications reform bills, Sen. Bob Dole co-sponsored S.892, the Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act of 1995, which prohibits any material that is "indecent."

There are also local efforts to regulate online communications. California bill AB 295 proposed to expand the definition of pornographic "matter" to include computational media, and specifically included "sadomasochistic abuse for sexual stimulation" within its definition of pornography. Governments are not the only ones getting in on the act: Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels has initiated a new "CyberAngels" crusade to monitor AOL chat rooms for electronic sex crimes.

A case in Milpitas, CA in 1994 called attention to the issue of "community standards" in cyberspace. Robert and Carleen Thomas were convicted of obscenity violations for operating the pornographic Amateur Action BBS. The sting was carried out by a postal inspector in Tennessee. Can representations that are acceptable in, say, San Francisco be forbidden because they don't meet community standards in more conservative parts of the country? This issue is even stickier on an international scale, where the U.S. constitution is a mere local ordinance.

The current most active area of control seems to be commercial online services, which have a single responsible entity at the top and are easy to police. In what may be one of the largest kiddy porn stings ever, this fall the FBI raided 125 homes and offices and arrested 12 people in "Operation Innocent Images," a 2-year operation against child pornography on AOL.

We cannot let online content for adults be limited to only that which is suitable for children. It is absurd that one could be prosecuted for transmitting online words that one can utter in public or images that one can publish in a magazine. The culture of the Internet has historically been open, and its technology is designed to facilitate rather than limit information exchange. But some new commercial online services do share this philosophy. Continued education and activism will be needed to keep cyberspace free for interesting, stimulating, controversial and sometimes offensive interchange between consenting adults.

Note from the WebMistress: The hardcopy issue of CU went to press on December 1. Since then, there was been some disturbing news on the cyber-censorship front. The House/Senate committee is leaning toward very restrictive language. The ACLU has vowed to file a First Amendment Lawsuit. The week on 11-15 December saw several actions, including an Internet Day of Protest (online) and rallies in several cities. Please help keep CU and others like us free to publish online. The following sites can give you updated information on the issue:

Liz Highleyman, Cuir Underground's WebMistress, got her first internet account in 1986 and now has seven. She believes one should be wary of all stories about computers that overuse the prefix "cyber."

© 1995, Cuir Underground

Last updated: 16 December 1995