Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 36

Are You Decent?

by Kirsten Cooke (

Through a combination of pending legislation and judicial decisions, the government has begun cracking down on what it sees as pornography on the Internet. The most potentially far-reaching bill is the Communication Decency Act of 1995 (S. 314) , which is currently being debated in the Senate. This bill, proposed by Senator Jim Exon (D-NE), would make all telecommunication providers doing business in the US liable for the content of anything sent over their networks. This means that in order to avoid being prosecuted for having "obscene" material passing through their lines, networks (everyone from the phone companies down to the local office network) would have to police all transmissions. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, Senator Exon had not realized the implications of the amendment and is currently considering revising it. The other bill that could affect "sex on the Net" was proposed by Representative Burton (R) of Indiana. If passed, it would change the U.S Code to make it a federal offense to "knowingly use a computer...for the sale or distribution of obscene material in interstate or foreign commerce." The law also boosts the penalty for breaking the law to a maximum of 10 years in prison.

See You in Court...

With the stakes of the penalties getting progressively higher, everyone wants to know "What exactly is considered indecent?" This is one of the questions that is still being fought out in the courtroom. In a recent case, two California BBS operators were found guilty of several obscenity charges after a postal inspector downloaded sexually oriented images from their bulletin board. The unsettling aspect of this case for many operators, however, was the fact that even though the BBS operators were from California, the trial was held in Tennessee. As a result, material that wouldn't have raised eyebrows in San Francisco was found to be highly offensive in Memphis. Internet policy watchdogs are worried about this decision because it sets a precedent for the most conservative parts of the country to determine acceptable moral standards for the entire electronic community.

Jake Baker's case has also caught the attention of the media. Baker is the University of Michigan student who was arrested for posting fictional stories about a fellow student to the newsgroup. The stories involved the torture, rape, and murder of a female character bearing the same name as a student in one of his classes. Baker then began an e-mail correspondence with a man in Canada about the stories, and wrote "Just thinking about it anymore doesn't do the trick. I need to do it." He was arrested and charged with interstate transmission of a threat, which is punishable by up to five years in jail. According to Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, the appropriate remedy is not prosecution but a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

The Rats Are Jumping Ship

How these court cases and proposed bills will affect the everyday workings of the Internet is not clear yet, but several service providers aren't waiting for the dust to settle before reacting. As of the middle of February, both Carnegie Mellon University and Delphi Internet Services Corporation had removed several newsgroups on the grounds that they contain sexually explicit material. The World Wide Web has also been affected, as sexually explicit sites like the Bondage, Domination, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism Web Page are shut down for fear of legal action.

The Internet Reacts

The whole of the Internet seems to be abuzz with discussion and warnings about the possible implications of the Communications Decency Act of 1995. Alerts and petitions have been circulating through e-mail, appearing in newsgroups, and taking up permanent residence on the Web. These analyses and calls to action are being sent out by a wide range of sources including the Electronic Messaging Association, a business group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and university students.

This online reaction seems to be having an effect: in a February 15 alert, the EMA indicated that due to the "outpouring of interest" of its members and others, Senator Exon is willing to consider alternatives to his original bill. ¤

Kirsten Cooke is a Master's student in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She thinks "hypertext is cool."

Copyright © 1995 by Kirsten Cooke. All Rights Reserved.

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