CMC Magazine August 1, 1995 / Page 4
|SPECIAL FOCUS: THE CYBERPORN FALLOUT|
by Jessica Thaler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"The pornographers may become the primary beneficiary of the information revolution," Senator Jim Exon told the Senate on June 14. Apparently, the senators believed him because in an 84-16 vote, the Senate decided to include The Communications Decency Act of 1995 with the Telecommunications Reform Package.
The Communications Decency Act is a move based more on fear than on the desire to save America's children from what Exon terms "smut." Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) proposed an alternative to the Exon bill that would have required congressional study of the Internet prior to imposing legislation. However, the Senate barely discussed the Leahy alternative due to their overwhelming support for Exon's bill.
House support for the Communications Decency Act is tenuous at this point. The House was slated to discuss the Act in mid-July, but some have predicted that the bill will simply die in the House, as Speaker Newt Gingrich openly stated that he finds it a violation of the first amendment: "I think the amendment you referred to by Senator Exon in the Senate will have no real meaning and have no real impact and in fact I don't think will survive. It is clearly a violation of free speech and it is a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other. I don't agree with it and I don't think it is a serious way to discuss a serious issue, which is, how do you maintain the right of free speech for adults while also protecting children in a medium which is available to both? ... I think by offering a badly thought out and not very productive amendment...put[s] the debate back a step."
The Senate debate over the Communications Decency Act opened with a decidedly religious tone. Senator Exon began with the following prayer, written by the Senate chaplain:
"Almighty God, Lord of all life, we praise You for the advancements in computerized communications that we enjoy in our time. Sadly, however, there are those who are littering this information superhighway with obscene, indecent, and destructive pornography. Virtual but virtueless reality is projected in the most twisted, sick misuse of sexuality. Violent people with sexual pathology are able to stalk and harass the innocent. Cyber solicitation of teenagers reveals the dark side of online victimization."
A biased statement such as this one should not have been permitted in what was supposed to be an intellectual discussion in the U.S. Congress. Not only was the chaplain, and Exon through him, attempting to impose a moral code on the members of the Senate, they were also espousing a limited Christian viewpoint. The chaplain's prayer had no business in a serious legislative debate, regardless of the religious and "moral" convictions of Senator Exon.
This knee-jerk reaction on the part of Exon clearly illustrates his lack of understanding about the Internet and the technology that surrounds it. Although seventy-four out of one hundred Senators actively use the Internet to disseminate information to their constituencies, they do not seem to understand that the Internet is no longer a governmental tool for communication; rather, it belongs to people world-wide. How can Congress even attempt to regulate something that knows no country boundaries?
It is clear that Exon has little idea of the amount or quality of information available on the Internet. Otherwise, how could he feel that it is being overrun with pornography and "smut"? Nothing jumps out at a net surfer -- one must search for everything, whether it be French novels, Playboy's home page, or the Library of Congress. If I execute a search for bondage and domination, then I certainly wanted to find it on the Internet!
Senator Leahy protested Exon's allegations and said that he, as a frequent net surfer, has not been able to find some of the material that Exon found. He does not doubt that such material exists on the Internet; however, he advocates as little government intervention as possible. "Had we had the Government involved every step of the way and had us engaged in micromanaging it every step of the way," Leahy commented, "we would not have the Internet that we have today."
Exon passed around his "little blue book" to members of the Senate seated near him, and urged each member to take a look at what he had found and downloaded from the World Wide Web. He said, "I hope that all of my colleagues, if they are interested, will come by my desk and take a look at this disgusting material, pictures of which were copied off the free Internet only last week, to give you an idea of the depravity on our children, possibly our society, that is being practiced on the Internet today. This is what the Coats-Exon amendment is trying to correct."
Depravity is everywhere! It is not new to the Internet, although it is far more controllable on the Internet than other places. After all, a child has to voluntarily access objectionable sites. This is the strongest point against the Exon bill. If parents take proper precautions and instruct their children in online etiquette (much in the same way they tell children not to talk to strangers), the incidents where a child runs away to meet his online friend will not occur all that frequently. The Internet is not any more accessible than other sources of pornography. Children always have had access to pornographic materials; magazines left in poor hiding places, the video store that rents adult movies to everyone, and the Spice channel on television are only a few places where kids can easily find pornographic material. It is up to parents, not legislators, to educate their children about the Internet and to decide what materials are not appropriate for their children.
Exon, however, argued that children, not parents, know how to use computers. While this is frequently true, it does not excuse the parent who buys a child a computer and access to an Internet service provider from familiaring him/herself with all aspects of the Internet. The parent who does not learn of the dangers that chat rooms can pose for children is at fault when his/her child runs away to meet his friend a few states away. Parents are responsible for knowing what their children are doing -- whether it be in school, at the playground, or on the Internet. Leahy compared the guidance his parents gave him when he was learning to read to what today's parents should practice when teaching their children about the Internet.
Exon constantly discusses "safety" on the Internet, but he overlooks the fact that the world is not a safe place. There are very real dangers in our cities and towns -- physical entities instead of virtual ones -- that will cause more damage to America's youth than some text and graphics stored on a remote computer.
Besides SurfWatch, a California company that has created software designed to block access to "objectionable" sites, other companies are banding together to make the Internet child-proof without legislation. A company called SafeSurf has asked that each owner of a World Wide Web site adopt a voluntary ratings code. Owners would simply add a piece of HTML text code to each document on the pages that are free of objectionable material. Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Inc. and Progressive Networks Inc. are working jointly to develop such a rating system and software designed to search for the HTML tag that denotes material appropriate for any age. SafeSurf also puts out a monthly newsletter that contains advice for monitoring children's activity on the Internet. America Online censors comments made in chat rooms along with and built-in mechanisms for parents so they know what sites their children access. In October, Compuserve is slated to unveil its new Internet program for children, called "Internet in a Box for Kids." It has a filter to block objectioable sites and also a log to record the sites a user visits. NetNanny and CYBERSitter are two other programs designed to block access to adult oriented sites.
However, even if the Exon amendment fails, dangerous, conflicting precedents have already been set in Internet legal cases. For example, in one recent case, Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy after a subscriber allegedly said that the president of Stratton was a criminal and that their stock offerings were fraudulent. Prodigy was found guilty because it reviews the material that users post online. Yet in a similar case, Compuserve was found not guilty of publishing an allegedly libelous statement because unlike Prodigy, CompuServe does not review material users post. However, based on the Prodigy verdict, another judge could have found CompuServe guilty as well because it had the means to censor postings by users.
Who is to say which precedent will be followed in the future? The Exon amendment attempts to clear this discrepancy by stating that no person can be prosecuted solely for providing "access or connection to or from a facility, system, or network over which that person has no control." This is intended to protect service providers by alleviating their responsibility subscribers do, but the full meaning of this is not unclear. After all, a college or university providing online access usually does not restrict Internet activity but it certainly could. The amendment is vague as to what constitutes "control," something that could cause legal battles in the future.
In the political world that the Internet has become, with petitions circulating on many commercial and personal sites to stop Internet legislation, it is clear that the first step towards a compromise between legislators and avid Internet users must be a greater effort on the part of Congress, as well as on the part of parents, to understand the technology we have at our fingertips. Without intelligent and calm discussion of the issues at hand, the Internet will continue to be portrayed as seedy or "smutty" by the religious right instead of taking its place with the greatest educational and communicational advances of the century.
Jessica Thaler is Editor-in-Chief for The Miscellany News Vassar College, Box 3346, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601.
Copyright © 1995 by Jessica Thaler. All Rights Reserved.
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