cr> Article from a Cyber Rights member, in New York Times


Sender: •••@••.••• (David S. Bennahum)

Richard, FYI & Cyber-Rights list:

                  Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
                               The New York Times

                 March 2, 1996, Saturday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 1; Page 19; Column 2; Editorial Desk

LENGTH: 674 words

HEADLINE: The Internet's Private Side

   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

    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

   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
"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
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 line.

  David S. Bennahum
  632 Broadway, 6th Floor
  New York, NY 10012
  Voice: 212-674-8107
  Fax  : 212-505-8520
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