Censorship has become an issue for computer bulletin board users


April 08, 1991|By Valerie Reitman | Valerie Reitman,Knight-Ridder News Service

Daniel Pinkwater's collision with what he calls the electronic "ministry of thought" began when he tried to send a note to other authors.

Mr. Pinkwater sat down at his computer, which dialed up Prodigy a service that links nearly one million computer users. He typed out a note and dispatched it to one of Prodigy's computer bulletin boards, a sort of electronic party line.

But his rather innocuous posting was rejected by the Prodigy monitors who patrol the boards. Mr. Pinkwater thinks they misunderstood a word in his message. A host of other messages he tried to send to test the system was similarly rejected.

"I began to get this Gulag feeling," Mr. Pinkwater said.

With nearly electronic speed, new legal and social questions are sprouting from this relatively recent form of computerized communication.

OC Are these electronic forums the equivalent of publications? Are

their owners "publishers," accountable for the content of items posted by members? Does the corporation or person who operates a board have the right to censor or otherwise control its content?

Are the bulletin boards common carriers, like the telephone lines? Suppose someone provides instructions on how to commit a crime? Who is guilty of infringement if copyrighted material is passed along on a bulletin board? And who owns the words posted on the boards?

Mr. Pinkwater's original bulletin, an SOS of sorts that he sent after a long day writing a children's book, called for "miserable, balding, middle-aged myopes, who smoke too much and whose lower backs are out of whack," to come forth for a discussion. He thinks Prodigy's monitor thought myope meant something nasty. myope is a nearsighted person.

Other such invitations sent by writers had been successfully posted on the bulletin board, beckoning science fiction and mystery writers to come forth.

"I'm a writer and I'm paying for the privilege of using the service, and here's this bug-wit sending back notes saying this is not suitable," Mr. Pinkwater said.

Electronic party lines such as Prodigy's are hardly unique.

Tens of thousands of Americans now tap into the boards each day to argue and discuss, share advice and information, and socialize with folks they may never meet in person.

There are electronic bulletin boards covering almost any imaginable topic: Bagpipers trade stories and music; literati discuss the worst sex scenes in fiction, and gardeners offer tips on how to nurture bougainvillea vines.

Teachers compare curriculum notes, doctors discuss diseases, scientists share reports, and citizens of Santa Monica, Calif., have computerized town meetings, noting new potholes or organizing crusades to help the homeless.

"It's kind of like stepping out to a bar, having a drink, and chatting with people without leaving your computer," said Mr. Pinkwater. "You can leave the party any time, it doesn't take any time to get there, and you can continue drinking all the while and have no trouble finding your house."

Not all boards charge fees for tapping into the network. Hundreds operate for free, set up by anyone who has a personal computer equipped with a modem (a device that enables a computer to send and receive information over telephone lines) and makes a small investment in software.

Cliff Figallo, director of The Well, says computer bulletin boards are an "oligarchy of the elite." To use one, a person has to own or have access to a computer, know how to type and have the money to pay fees and phone charges.

But as prices of personal computers have plummeted to as low as a few hundred dollars, millions of households now have one.

In just two years, Prodigy, a joint venture of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and IBM Corp., has attracted more than 850,000 customers. Prodigy's services include shopping, news, travel reservations and advice columns in addition to the bulletin boards. The cost is $12.95 a month, plus a local phone call charge in most areas.

As the largest commercial service, Prodigy has become a lightning rod for disputes on many of the issues being raised about electronic bulletin boards. Numerous subscribers have complained about censorship of their messages.

Prodigy said it would not reject a message because of a thin skin. Messages usually are rejected because they are unrelated to a particular topic being discussed on a bulletin board, it said.

In any case, Prodigy says it views itself as a publisher, with the right to "print" or post whatever it deems fit. And it wants to be G-Rated -- the Disney Channel of the computer networks.

Just as newspapers do not print all articles or letters to the editor submitted, Prodigy maintains that it has a right to restrict postings.

"We believe there's no distinction between dots of phosphorus [on a computer screen] and dots of ink in a newspaper," said George Perry, Prodigy's general counsel.

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