• U.S.

CULTURE: Censoring Cyberspace

7 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

The steam began rising for Carnegie Mellon University four weeks ago, when one of its research associates, Martin Rimm, informed the administration that a draft of his study of pornography on the computer networks was about to be released. Rimm had made an elaborate analysis of the sexually oriented material available online. Not only had he put together a picture collection that rivaled Bob Guccione’s (917,410 in all), but by tracking how many times each image had been retrieved by computer users (a total of 6.4 million downloads), he had obtained a measure of the consumer demand for different categories of sexual content, some of them, as a faculty adviser put it, “extremely rough.”

The problem, from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, university’s point of view, was not that Rimm had found sexually explicit content on the computer networks; there is sex in every medium, from comic books to videotapes. Nor was it even that he had found some of it on CMU’s own computers; every university connected to the Internet is a conduit, however unwitting, for gigabytes of salacious words and pictures. The immediate issue was that Rimm had brought it to the administration’s attention, pointing out that some of the images on CMU’s machines — digitized pictures of men and women having sex with animals, for example — had been declared obscene by a Tennessee court a few months before.

William Arms, vice president of CMU’s computing services department, spent an hour reviewing the questionable material “with the law of Pennsylvania in one hand and a mouse in the other” and decided that the university was in deep trouble. It is illegal in the state to knowingly distribute sexually explicit material to anyone under the age of 18 — as many freshmen are — or to distribute obscene material at all, no matter what the consumer’s age. Fearing that the university would be open to prosecution — and the worst kind of publicity — CMU’s academic council hurriedly voted to shut down those areas of the computer system that carried discussions or depictions of sex. The plug was scheduled to be pulled last Tuesday.

Thus the lines were drawn for a battle over the preservation of free speech in the new interactive media — a battle that not only raised tricky questions about how to balance openness with good taste, but also managed, on a campus not noted for activism, to rouse something resembling a student protest movement. CMU casts a long shadow in cyberspace. It was one of the first ^ universities to join the Arpanet (the precursor to the Internet) and the first to wire up its dorms. It even provides Internet access to some of its bathrooms. Using the computer networks to spread the word and muster support, the students quickly organized a “Protest for Freedom in Cyberspace” that drew 350 students and faculty members. (Pittsburgh in the 1990s, though, is hardly Berkeley in the ’60s: the protesters last week politely applauded their opponents and then retired to a reception with cheese and fruit.)

At the core of the CMU dispute is a question that goes beyond the campus and could touch every media and entertainment company that wants to do business on the info highway: to what extent can the operators of interactive media be held responsible for the material that moves through their systems? Are they common carriers, like the phone companies, which must ignore the content of the messages? Are they like TV stations, whose broadcasts are monitored by the government for fairness and suitability? Or are they like bookstores, which the courts have ruled can’t be expected to review the content of every title on their shelves? And what happens when that content hops over borders and lands in a different city — or country — whose laws and community standards may differ?

The last issue came to a head most dramatically last July, after a U.S. postal inspector, posing as a customer in Tennessee, downloaded X-rated pictures from an adult computer bulletin board in California. Though the images might have been acceptable by California standards, they were judged obscene in the Bible Belt, and the owners of the bulletin board were convicted of transporting obscene material across state lines. Their appeal may be headed for the Supreme Court.

There’s more to free speech than sexy words and pictures, of course. Publishers who venture onto international networks like the Internet are particularly concerned about libel and slander. The rules of libel in England, for example, are considerably more restrictive than those in the U.S.; what might be considered a fair crack at a public figure in New York City could be actionable in London. Conversely, the muzzles that are slapped on reporters covering trials in Commonwealth countries can’t be placed so easily on writers living abroad, as Canadian officials learned to their dismay last year when foreign press reports of a particularly sensitive homicide case in Ontario began drifting back into Canada through the Internet.

All sorts of subversive materials have found their way onto the computer networks, from secret spy codes to instructions for making long-range rocket bombs. As if to provoke the authorities, some college students have posted collections of electronic pamphlets that include Suicide Methods, an instruction manual for self-destruction, and The School Stopper’s Textbook, which tells students how to blow up toilets, short-circuit electrical wiring and “break into your school at night and burn it down.”

High schools pose a special problem for administrators, who want to give students the benefits of computer networking without exposing minors to everything that washes up online. Many lower schools have adopted the CMU approach, cutting off access to the electronic discussion groups where the most offensive material is carried.

At CMU, the administration determined that its problem was centered in a collection of discussion groups, called Usenet newsgroups, with awkward but functional titles like alt.sex, rec.arts.erotica and alt.binaries.pictures.erotica. The “binary” groups are the most controversial, for they contain codes that savvy computer users can translate into pictures and movie clips. The university’s initial decision was to pull the plug on all the major “sex” newsgroups and their subsidiary sections — more than 80 categories altogether.

That decision drew fire from all sides. The student council pointed out that the administration was restricting the reading matter of adults to what was acceptable for children. The American Civil Liberties Union complained that the ban was overly broad and included discussions of sexual matters that were clearly protected speech. Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, made a distinction between words and pictures, arguing that while images are still sometimes found obscene, words never are — a view confirmed by the Allegheny county assistant district attorney, who told Time there was “not a chance in a million” his office could win an obscenity case based on a written work.

But the central objection was more fundamental: that the university had ignored decades of constitutional law and abrogated its responsibility as a center for free inquiry. “I’m deeply ashamed that Carnegie Mellon capitulated so spinelessly,” said one CMU student in a radio call-in debate. “Some lawyer told them they might someday be dragged into court, and they just decided, ‘To hell with the First Amendment.”‘

By midweek, the university had begun to back down. First it seized on Godwin’s formula, banning the binaries and leaving the text in place — pending review by a student-faculty committee. Then, on Thursday night, the faculty senate voted to recommend restoration of all the newsgroups, including the binaries.

But the issue will not go away. There is material on the networks — child pornography, in particular — that has been targeted for prosecution by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Unless computer users exercise some self- restraint, control could be imposed from the outside. If that happens, the next generation of interactive media may not have the freedom and openness that today’s users value so highly.

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