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Lost in Cyberspace

Free speech, pornography back on collision course

This column was originally published on March 17, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Like the swallows to Capistrano or college students to Ft. Lauderdale, the arrival of spring each year heralds Congress returning to pornography on the Internet.

There are two bills pending in Congress to encourage libraries and schools to install filtering software to block pornography – through Congress' usual method of withholding funding for those that don't. And several members of Congress have promised to introduce legislation to try to get around a Supreme Court ruling last summer that found the anti-pornography provisions of the Communications Decency Act an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

It's not just Congress, either. New Mexico's legislature recently passed a law similar to the CDA, and the American Civil Liberties Union is suing a Virginia public library that installed a filtering system as violating free speech.

San Diego's city library system also has such a filtering system, and its county libraries require users under the age of 18 to submit written parental permission forms before they are allowed to access the Internet.

But just how big a presence is pornography on the Internet? How easy (or hard) is it for someone to accidentally come across explicit materials?

To be blunt, the Internet is becoming awash in smut. Even longtime Internet users (such as myself) who formerly scoffed at media reports about sex on the Internet are increasingly disgusted at the growing amount of pornographic spam creeping into seemingly every corner of the Internet.

Recently, I posted a query about some software to a Usenet newsgroup, – the next day, I had two unsolicited messages from pornographic Web sites encouraging me to visit; one of them even had an explicit image embedded in it. And while browsing numerous non-sexually oriented newsgroups, I repeatedly found spam messages advertising porn sites posted.

From jazz to Star Trek, cooking to Taoist philosophy, the porn kings are flooding newsgroups with their cheap, tacky advertisements.

Of course, there are the hundreds, maybe thousands, of Usenet newsgroups openly devoted to all things sexual. And if you have a full PPP account, odds are good that your account has access to all or most of them – as does anyone using your account (as in your children).

(As to why Internet service providers would provide access to the newsgroups devoted to child pornography, which is patently illegal, it's tied up in a legal concept known as "common carrier status."

Just as the phone company can't be held responsible for the content of its customers' conversations, so Internet providers can't be held liable for the content of their customers' online activities – but only so long as they don't try to monitor them. Once an Internet provider begins limiting access or monitoring its customers' online behavior, it risks losing its common carrier status under the law and could be found liable for any crimes committed on its system – not a risk most sane business owners want to take.

Congress could – and should – fix this situation by allowing ISPs to drop access to any newsgroup or Web site openly dedicated to illegal activity without surrendering their common carrier status.)

And, yes, children can unwittingly stumble across porn on the Web, too. There's the infamous site, for instance, the address for which many a student has typed in thinking that's the White House site (the real White House is at The ".com" site, though, is a porn site – with a naked model on the welcoming screen.

There are other site names that are similarly confusing, where someone seeking out a mainstream business or organization instead ends up at a pornographic site.

So parents and schools are rightly concerned.

But so are free speech advocates who worry that any effort to restrict pornography will restrict all speech about sexually oriented issues. After the CDA was passed, both pro-choice and pro-life groups condemned it as banning discussion about abortion, for instance (and how often do those two camps agree on anything?).

Which leaves the seemingly reasonable compromise of using filtering software to allow parents, schools and libraries to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate materials. The ACLU argument – that a library is constitutionally bound to provide sexually explicit materials – seems a bit of a stretch.

Is the local library "censoring" the public when it doesn't subscribe to Hustler? C'mon ? Should the ACLU prevail in forcing libraries to remove anti-pornography filters from their Internet terminals, the end result may be one the ACLU doesn't intend: Many public libraries will simply remove the Internet terminals altogether, depriving the community of a valued and valuable resource.

But make up your own mind: The ACLU's argument about why it feels blocking software in libraries is unconstitutional can be found at

For more info on the New Mexico state law regarding pornography on the Internet, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a kind of online ACLU).

Details on the congressional bills to compel libraries and schools to install filters can be found at the Library of Congress' Thomas site. From the main screen, simply type in the bill numbers (H.R. 3177 and S. 1619) in the lefthand search window.