.. b-pages on the internet. Most of this material is extremely hard to access as advanced knowledge of computers is required, however it is the youth in most families that know how to use the computer best. Problems arise when minors left alone on the computer are free to browse some of the most graphic pictures ever taken, or to learn the easy way to make a pipe bomb from house-hold ingredients. The media has a tendency to magnify certain aspects of reality while completely forgetting about others.
The mass media so far has not been too kind to the internet. Mainly because television and print magazines view it as a long-term threat encroaching in on their market. The July 3 1995 article of Time magazine featured a cover story labeled “CYBERPORN”. Spanning eight pages the article tries to expose the “red light district” of the information superhighway. It was the publishing of this article in a high- profile magazine that sparked the whole cyberporn debate. When Time published a cover story on Internet pornography a certain amount of controversy was to be expected. Computer porn, after all, is a subject that stirs strong passions.
So does the question of whether free speech on the Internet should be sharply curtailed, as some Senators and Member of Congress have proposed. But the “flame war” that ensued on the computer networks when the story was published soon gave way to a full-blown and highly political conflagration. The main focus of discontent was a new study, “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway”, purportedly by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, which was a centerpiece of Time’s story. In the course of the debate, serious questions have been raised regarding the study’s methodology, the ethics by which its data were gathered and even its true authorship. Marty Rimm, who wrote it while an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, grossly exaggerated the extent of pornography on the Internet by conflating findings from private adult-bulletin-board systems that require credit cards for payments (and are off limits to minors) with those from the public networks (which are not).
Many of Rimm’s statistics, are either misleading or meaningless; for example, the study’s now frequently cited claim that 83.5 percent of the images stored on the USENET newsgroups are pornographic. A more telling statistic is that pornographic files represent less than one- half of 1 percent of all messages posted on the Internet. Other critics point out that it is impossible to count the number of times those files are downloaded; the network measures only how many people are presented with the opportunity to download, not how many actually do. Rimm has developed his own credibility problems. When interviewed by Time for the cover story, he refused to answer questions about his life on the grounds that it would shift attention away from his findings.
But quite a bit of detail has emerged, much of it gathered by computer users on the Internet. It turns out that Rimm is no stranger to controversy. In 1981, as a 16-year-old junior at Atlantic City High School, he conducted a survey that purported to show that 64 percent of his school’s students had illicitly gambled at the city’s casinos. Widely publicized (and strongly criticized by the casinos as inaccurate), the survey inspired the New Jersey legislature to raise the gambling age in casinos from 18 to 21. According to the Press of Atlantic City, his classmates in 1982 voted Rimm most likely to be elected President of the U.S.
The next year, perhaps presciently, they voted him most likely to overthrow the government. More damaging to Rimm are two books that he wrote, excerpts of which have begun to circulate on the Internet. One is a salacious privately published novel, An American Playground, based on his experience with casinos. The other, also privately published, is titled “The Pornographer’s Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men & Make Lots of Money”. Rimm says it’s a satire; others saw it offering practical advice to adult-bulletin-board operators about how to market pornographic images effectively.
Neither Carnegie Mellon nor the Georgetown Law Journal has officially backed away from the study (although the university is forming a committee to look into it). Rimm’s faculty adviser, Marvin Sirbu, a professor of engineering and public policy, continues to support him, saying the research has been deliberately mischaracterized by people with a political agenda. But Sirbu himself has been attacked by Carnegie Mellon colleagues for not properly supervising his student and for helping him secretly gather data about the pornography-viewing habits of the university’s students. Meanwhile, some of the researchers listed as part of Rimm’s “team” now say their involvement was minimal; at least one of them had asked Rimm to remove his name. Brian Reid Ph.D who is the director of the Network System Laboratory at Digital Equipment Corporation is the author of the network measurement software tools that Rimm used to compile his statistics.
He had this to say about the Rimm study: “I have read a preprint of the Rimm study of pornography and I am so distressed by its lack scientific credibility that I don’t even know where to begin critiquing it.” As a rule, computer-wise citizens of cyberspace tend to be strong civil libertarians and First Amendment absolutists. Some clearly believe that Time, by publicizing the Rimm study, was contributing to a mood of popular hysteria, sparked by the Christian Coalition and other radical-right groups, that might lead to a crackdown. It would be a shame, however, if the damaging flaws in Rimm’s study obscured the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet. So as a response to the hysteria wide-sweeping legislational machinery was put into motion and Senators Exon and Coats drafted up the infamous Communications Decency Act. Section 502: “Whoever ..
uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.. shall be fined under Title 1, United States Code, or imprisoned not more than two years…” This act outlaws any material deemed “obscene” and imposes fines up to $100 000 and prison terms up to two years on anyone who knowingly makes “indecent” material available to children under 18, as directly quoted from section 502. The measure had problems from the start. The key issue to senators like Exon is whether to classify the internet as a print medium like newspapers, or a broadcast medium like television. Unfortunately it is a communications medium and should be treated as such. If such legislation was passed to control telephone conversations, many teenagers would get the electric chair at age fifteen.
The Communications Decency Act never passed, but a line in the telecommunications bill that did pass denounces anything “indecent” being transmitted. The legal ramifications are still being fought over in government as the vague nature of the clause leaves it open to multiple interpretations. As the issue stands now, there are only two real solutions. One would be the adoption of government controls that would infringe on peoples rights to free speech, but also make the net a safe place to be. The other would for parents to use filtering software to control what their computer is receiving.