Senator moves to censor computer-network sex

March 26, 1995|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Amateur Action, a computer bulletin board that advertises itself as "the nastiest place on Earth!," was still open for business yesterday despite the conviction of its owners last year on charges of transmitting obscene material over computer networks.

The only change appears to be a warning that greets all callers: "Amateur Action BBS is for the private use of the citizens of the United States! Use by law enforcement agents, postal inspectors, and informants is prohibited!"

Business appears to be good: A reporter was told he was "caller No. 1,083,677" just before he was offered a menu of choices that included "Oral Sex," "Bestiality," "Nude Celebrities" and "Lolita Schoolgirls."

Sexually explicit fiction and digitized photographs of naked people are common on the nation's rapidly growing computer networks, as are forums for discussing sexual fantasies.

And computer experts and lawyers who specialize in cyberspace issues say a proposal in the Senate to bar such material from the nation's information networks is impractical, unenforceable and perhaps unconstitutional.

"My major concern is to make the new Internet and information superhighway as safe as possible for kids to travel," said Sen. Jim Exon in an interview yesterday. The Nebraska Democrat is the author of the proposed Communications Decency Act of 1995.

The proposal, which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday without dissent, would impose fines of as much as $100,000 and two-year prison terms on anyone who knowingly transmits any "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" communications on the nation's telecommunications networks.

The law would apply to telephone systems, cable and broadcast TV systems, and public and private computer networks, including the global Internet.

Similar laws have been proposed in several states, reflecting a growing national concern over use of a new communications medium that now reaches millions of homes in the United States.

"The potential danger here is that material that most rational and reasonable people would interpret as pornography and smut is falling into the hands of minors," Mr. Exon said.

Proposals for restrictions have been met with incredulity and outrage by Internet users, legal experts and civil libertarians, who contend that efforts to halt the flow of information in cyberspace -- where, in effect, every computer is a bookstore and a printing press -- are futile on both technical and legal grounds.

There are more than 70,000 private computer bulletin board systems in the United States and even more private business networks.

Private commercial computer networks, including America Online, Prodigy Services and CompuServe, have nearly 6 million subscribers. Many of them are connected to the Internet, the biggest network of all.

The Internet is a vast collection of mainly private computer networks, connecting millions of users in about 150 countries. More than half the users are outside the United States.

The overwhelming bulk of material on computer networks is not sexual, and the fastest-growing segments of Internet traffic are related to the transmission of business information and computer software.

So attempting to filter out sex-related material from the torrent of digital bits passing through tens of thousands of computer networks "is like shooting an ICBM at a gnat," said David Banisar, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a lobbying group in Washington.

Dan L. Burk, visiting assistant professor of law at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., noted that courts have required attempts to protect minors from objectionable information, as in telephone "dial-a-porn," to use the "least restrictive means" to accomplish the goal.

A comprehensive ban on such material on computer networks, Mr. Burk said, could restrict material that courts have ruled legal to disseminate to adults through more conventional outlets.

"If the burden becomes too high for protected adult speech, then the statute clearly is not going to pass muster" in federal courts, he said.

Internet experts note that while information flows freely over the Internet, the medium differs significantly from broadcast media such as television or radio.

With few exceptions, users have to actively seek sex-related material, which can be difficult to find among the vast resources of the global network. In the case of some photo files, the user typically must use more than casual technical skills to assemble the images for viewing.

Because of the international nature of the Internet, creators of sexually explicit material can quickly set up operations overseas or transfer their material to foreign computer networks. Americans participating in sex-related discussions on their computers can just as easily route their messages through so-called anonymous remailers who hide their identities.

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