The New York Times
March 2, 1996, Saturday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 19; Column 2; Editorial Desk
HEADLINE: The Internet's Private Side
BYLINE: By David S. Bennahum.
During a jaunt through the World Wide Web, I came across a seemingly
innocuous invitation: "This is a HOT link." I clicked on the glowing words,
which connected me with another computer that generated a picture of a nude
woman with the tag line "Slut for Rent" imposed over her in big yellow letters.
The Web site had similar pictures of "Candy," "Amber" and "Farah," as well as
the predictable audio tracks.
This phone-sex service advertising its wares, just an accidental mouse click
away, shows how easily browsers can stumble across pornography on computer
It also made clear to me that the Government has a responsibility to
regulate sexually explicit material on line. This is a radical statement for an
avid Internet user; most of my colleagues feel that government should have no
jurisdiction over cyberspace.
However the Communications Decency Act, which makes it a felony to knowingly
transmit indecent sexual material to children over computer networks, is not
the solution. Signed by President Clinton last month, the act is facing a
constitutional free-speech challenge by organizations that include America
Online and the American Civil Liberties Union. A panel of three Federal District
Court judges in Philadelphia is to hear arguments beginning March 21.
The problem is not that the Government has no place in cyberspace. It is that
the law fails to recognize that the Internet is not a monolith -- that it has
public and private areas.
After President Clinton signed the act, the Internet lit up with fury. "This
is OUR LAST CHANCE to fight back against the familytary," warned one message.
"If we blow this one, the Internet will be one great big Disney cartoon!"
But the critics offered no real alternatives to the act. Some advocated
"virtual secession" -- a nonsensical phrase that ignores how intimately
cyberspace is intertwined with the physical world.
Others simply got angry. My E-mail box filled with invective aimed at
Washington, the religious right and corporate America -- until everything fused
into the blur of conspiracy theory: "The Telecom bill could never have passed in
this form if the American people were allowed to examine its text beforehand.
But its text was kept secret from American citizens; it was available only to
the corporate lobbyists and their politician puppets who drafted it."
The critics are correct, however, in saying that under the act, material
deemed indecent anywhere in the infinite expanse of the Internet is
automatically classified as indecent everywhere. This is as if laws concerning
indecency on broadcast television applied to phone calls between adults. We know
that would be absurd; a call is private and TV is public.
What's confusing about the Internet is that while it is one entity, it
carries the equivalent of both telephone calls and TV broadcasts. Yahoo!, a
popular Web site that registers 14 million "hits" (requests for information)
each day, resembles a public medium like TV. But when I send an E-mail message
to a friend, it is more like a phone call. Electronic newsletters, sent only to
subscribers, resemble newspapers.
Clearly, society has the right to curb sexually explicit material in public
spaces. But the more private a forum, the greater the rights of the individual.
Yet, according to the act, material considered indecent on Yahoo! would be
banned from a newsletter and E-mail.
This broad brush will only cause more problems as computer networks take on
more and more functions of the media. Even now, it is possible to place
telephone calls through the Internet, bypassing long-distance telephone
companies. Some on-line services provide live radio and TV broadcasts as well.
Common sense dictates that we start treating these forms of communication
differently even though they all exist on the Internet. If the courts reject the
Communications Decency Act, computer users have a duty to work with Congress to
write a law that will protect children but allow adults to communicate freely on
by David S. Bennahum