Sex and the Dark Side of the Internet

By: Christopher Harper The author is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at New York University.

In one section of a major computer magazine, there are the usual pitches for printers, laptops and a variety of paraphernalia. There's a new pitch, too, for pornography on the Internet.

"Your computer has never done this before! You control the Action, as a hot live nude stripper obeys your every command! Live on your PC!" the ad promises. "Choose from a menu of Fantasy girls and pick the ones you wish to interact with." "Gay Men!" "Love View." "The Lace Network."

Each ad has an address on the World Wide Web. When a user gets to the Web page, there are usually two choices: click if you are over 18 years old or click if you are under 18 years old. There are easily accessible sites on mutilation, and even one that shows video clips of people being killed. More than 400 Internet news groups discuss issues from bondage to illicit drug use to advocating violence.

Should these sites be protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Will they be protected? Right now, most experts refer to the Internet as the "Wild West" of publishing because there are few legal restrictions on what content can be offered. The Clinton Administration tried to restrict content, but the Communications Decency Act was found to be unconstitutional because it restricted freedom of expression. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to consider the issue soon. It is difficult to determine how, and if, the Internet can be regulated. Is the Internet similar to a newspaper, a broadcast network or something entirely different? If the Internet is like a newspaper, there are few restrictions on what can be published. If the owner of a porno bookstore, however, sold a magazine to a minor, he or she would be violating the law. So far, that's not the case on the Internet.

Broadcast television, however, is restricted in what types of content can be offered and at what times. Cable television stations have more flexibility in offering pornographic material. Simply put, there are few laws that limit Internet content, says New York University Professor Stephen Solomon, a lawyer in the department of journalism. Existing law centers on what is designated as "obscene" rather than "pornographic," he says. In order to be considered obscene under the law, Solomon says, the content must depict sexual acts, masturbation, bestiality or other active promiscuity rather than material that sexually excites the reader or viewer. He adds that the "escape clause" in the courts makes material legal if it has literary, political or scientific value. For radio and television, however, the restrictions are tighter. Because radio and television can be immediately available to children, the courts have determined that offensive material must be broadcast during late hours when children are unlikely to be listening or watching.

"No one is forcing any of us to be in this marketplace of ideas. But once we inject ourselves into it, we must be prepared to encounter ideas we find objectionable -- just as someone might find our ideas objectionable," argues Eric Meyer, a consultant on online issues who also teaches cyberjournalism at the University of Illinois. The sites "are in very poor taste or downright objectionable. But they are not illegal. Nor should they be. The fact that you or I don't like them is irrelevant. That is precisely the type of expression that needs protection."

Child pornography is banned, and traffickers have been arrested for putting such material on the Internet. In Virginia, a new law forbids state employees from using computers at work to visit sexually explicit sites on line. In New York, posting indecent material in cyberspace to anyone under 17 years old has become a crime.

What about protecting children from pornography and other dark sides of the Internet? America Online provides a way for parents to limit children's access to the racier sections of its service, but other protective devices called "filters" are needed to shut off undesirable sites. Working in conjunction with a user's Web browser, these filters block out access to sites before a user can view them. One service, Surfwatch, offers continuing software updates for new sites deemed offensive. So far, the company has isolated 10,000 Internet sites that it monitors on violence, hate crimes, drugs, alcohol and sex. The system allows parents to add sites they find objectionable for their children.

Only a few days ago, I turned on my Macintosh before my young daughter did and found an unsolicited electronic mail for a "virtual" girlfriend or a "virtual" boyfriend. Described as "one of the most realistic, sexually stimulating computer games available," the program was "designed for both heterosexuals and homosexuals."

The seller had gotten my email address from a discussion group about journalism and even sent the same mailing to others on the list. Neil Budde, the editor of the Wall Street Journal's interactive edition, warns: "The more you want from the Internet, the more you give up privacy." Ultimately, the only effective way to protect yourself and your children from all objectionable materials is shut the computer off. But is that really a solution?

Christopher Harper is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at New York University. He has worked for the Associated Press, Newsweek Magazine, and ABC News. His book, And That's The Way It Will Be: News In The Digital Age, will be published next year by New York University Press.


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