Moral Panics on the Net

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The internet is twenty-five years old today. Despite its ad-hoc appearance -- it grew without benefit of planning or central control -- it is a highly integrated, very functional networking system. Its original function, as defined in the ARPANet project, was to develop a distributed communications medium that was not vulnerable to single-point failures and that could provide information transport between a wide range of organizations using different types of equipment. It has fulfilled this task well; indeed, it may have worked too well, because today various parties are calling for the imposition of the most stringent censorship this century.

Background: the internet as playground

The internet was developed primarily in academic and corporate research institutions. As such, its early years were characterised by a curiously ivory-tower approach to life that tends to puzzle newcomers to the net. For example, one of the conditions of a network connection was that the signatory organizations had to sign an Acceptable Use Policy -- a set of terms and conditions that defined their rights to use the system. While network traffic was primarily carried over government-owned links (such as the late, lamented NSFNet) the use of that section of the net for commercial purposes was strictly forbidden; advertising, much less spamming, could get your net feed dropped. Even today, AUPs are a feature of any network connection: but a commercial feed tends to have much less to say about commercial activities, and more to say about involvement in commission of crimes or denial of service to other users.

As of about 1990, there was very little in the way of private use, much less commerce, on the net: big companies used it for email, universities used it for information sharing, and that was the beginning and end of it. Since then we've seen a huge mushrooming of service providers; the effects are visible everywhere, from the magazines in high street shops to the programs on TV of an evening. The big increase of interest in the internet has been catalysed by its lack of structure; it connects to every other online service of any consequence, so that by achieving internet access you can talk to the rest of the online world. The inrush of users that this produced has significantly changed the demographics of the net.

Once upon a time, there were no children on the internet. Academics, scientists and engineers used it: but children do not typically have the kind of pocket money budget that buys a router and a leased line. However, a family connection to CompuServe, AOL, or an internet IP provider such as Demon Systems, is another matter. A substantial number of the academics, scientists, and engineers who are on the net at work wanted to be on the net at home: so it is that the age of the family in cyberspace has dawned. Today it is uncommon -- but by no means unique -- for an entire family to have net addresses and receive email and news at home. Indeed, this is seen as a growth market; UK Online, a new online access provider based in Bath, are developing their services based on the premise that domestic, family-friendly information is the way to go.

Suburbs on the web

John Perry Barlow, singer-songwriter for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented that cyberspace was the new frontier. A few hardy homesteaders had struck out for the horizon and staked their claims in this lawless wilderness. Following behind them were the builders of roads and providers of transport -- companies such as CompuServe, or Pipex, or Demon Internet -- who would open up the wilderness to the masses. Behind them, in turn, would come housing developers and publishers and families and finally lawyers and police to regulate and control the behaviour of the net's inhabitants. And finally we would have suburbia in cyberspace.

This may sound like a comfortable picture, but to many of the people who got the ball rolling it sounds like hell. Police on the net? The net is designed to route around information blockages, making policing impossible -- or impossibly intrusive. Children on the net? The net is for serious adult discussions. Why should we censor our arguments and dumb ourselves down to a level that would not offend a four-year old? Lawyers on the net? The net is about freedom of speech and the free movement of ideas! Lawyers are anathema -- the exact opposite of everything the net is about.

As you may imagine, the contradiction between the original "purpose" of the net, as defined by its earliest population, and its perceived "purpose", as defined by those who moved in later, has led to some famously burning rows. The net is not, and cannot easily be turned into, suburbia. It is not safe for children or sheep to safely graze. There are people out there who don't like children, don't want to talk to them, and don't want to censor words meant for other adults on the mere off-chance that a child is listening.

Who uses AOL?

A couple of points are worth noting before diving into the murky waters of the net porn propaganda wars.

For starters, the profile of the average net user is fairly well known. Net users fall into several categories; students and academics with university accounts, people working in the computer industry (and other high-tech industries), and "other". "Other" mainly consists of male ( 60%+) white (80%+) middle-class graduates (60%+) with a private dial-up connection to a service provider; either a direct internet connection (such as a Demon account) or a value-added network (such as America Online, AOL, or Compuserve). Income is above the national average, politics (at least in the USA) is somewhat right-of-centre, and age is in the range 20-40.

The waters can be muddied a bit further; the net is a fluid medium for identity, and some private users are not who they say they are. AOL, for example, assigns up to five nicknames to each account holder, to use as they will. Sometimes these are distributed within a family; sometimes they are all used by an individual who wants to be identified by a different handle depending on where they go.

You can never be totally sure who someone is until you meet them in the flesh. It is easy, given the text-only nature of the medium, to pretend to be someone else. The odds are that if you run across a sexy, kittenish female teen in a public part of the net they are actually a spotty twenty-something male acting out a fantasy that doesn't work in front of a mirror. Likewise, there are "men" on the net who are not men in real life -- but the women behind the identities prefer not to be identified as women, because of the irritating minority of socially inept males who think that anyone with a female name wants to become romantically involved with them. And a number of apparent "children" on the net are most definitely not. For example, one US State Senator, trolling the waters for sensationalistic gossip on which to base a legislative program, built for himself an identity as a fifteen-year-old girl in search of excitement -- then claimed to be surprised when he was propositioned by a young man.

It is important to bear one thing in mind: children are still in a minority. A very small minority. Families with home connections are rare; a contract with a service provider costs more than most teen-ager's pocket money, as does the equipment to use it, and it typically needs to be paid for by credit card or direct debit (thus requiring the intervention of an adult). As most families with dependent children have prior claims on their finances, the "other" category of net user is still dominated by the childless-but-affluent class of fashion and technology conscious adult who has the disposable income to afford the connection.

And it therefore follows that anyone who begins talking about "protecting the children" from the evils of uncensored internet content either doesn't know what they're talking about -- or has a hidden agenda.


Thursday June 7, 1995 

                 Christian Coalition's Contract With The
                    American Family Gains Momentum

    Senator Grassley Introduces Computer Pornography Legislation

Christian Coalition, a pro-family citizen organization with 1.6 million 
members and supporters, today applauded Senator Chuck Grassley's computer 
pornography initiative to prohibit the distribution of pornographic 
material to children over computer networks such as Internet or community 
bulletin boards.

Christian Coalition has pledged to work with Senator Grassley and other 
legislators who are planning to introduce similar computer-porn bills, to 
provide even more protection for children.  The proposal to protect 
children from exposure to pornography was recently introduced as part of 
Christian Coalition's Contract With The American Family.  Christian 
Coalition will activate its vast network of grassroots activists who will 
press Congress for passage of this type of legislation.

"Cyber-porn is a real threat to families and has quickly become an alarming 
issue for parents who want to protect their children," said Brian Lopina, 
director of Christian Coalition's Governmental Affairs Office.  "Any child 
who clicks on a home computer can see lurid images of loveless sex, even 
rape, and we commend Senator Grassley for his initiative and his leadership 
on this issue."

Under the Grassley bill, it would be illegal for anyone to knowingly or 
recklessly transmit indecent material to minors.  The bill would prohibit 
on-line computer services from allowing individual users to 
indiscriminately pass obscene material to children.

"There are already numerous sites on the Internet and on community bulletin 
boards where hard-core adult material is available to children," said 
Lopina.  "Our goal is to protect youngsters from the onslaught of these 
graphic images that can intrude into anyone's home."

Rimm Job

The Christian Coalition for Family Values is not the only organization that believes in the existence of vast masses of hard-core pornography on the internet. Nor is belief in such a repository of filth restricted to fundamentalist or conservative organizations; several senators and congressmen in the USA have espoused their belief, and more seriously, police and FBI investigations and arrests have followed.

But does the sea of sludge really exist? And if it does, what kind of threat to decent civil society does it pose?

Martin Rimm, an electrical engineering student at Carnegie Melon University, conducted a study into net porn. It was originally submitted to an academic law journal, The Georgetown Law Review, but was subsequently used as the centerpiece of a cover story in TIME magazine, published on the 26th of June 1995. In his study, Rimm reported that over an 18-month time span he had surveyed "917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips. On those Usenet newsgroups where digitized images are stored, 83.5 percent of the pictures were pornographic."

The TIME story, written by senior journalist Philip Elmer DeWitt, ignited a firestorm of controversy. Several methodological analyses of the Rimm study rapidly determined that it was extremely badly flawed, to the point where any reputable journal would have rejected it out of hand. For example, the "83.5%" figure was derived from an analysis, over seven days (selected by the researcher), of images posted to a "binaries" newsgroup specifically reserved for postings of erotica. In point of fact, such newsgroups account for a total of 0.5% of usenet traffic by byte count -- given that image files are typically much larger than text postings, the 0.5% figure gives a disproportionately high weighting to the prevalence of pornographic images in that particular medium. And that's less than 0.5% of the main medium by which such images are distributed over the internet; other avenues for information propagation carry substantially less.

The "917,410 pornographic images" figure is also bogus. The TIME article neglected to explain that the study had also gone fishing -- on bulletin boards dedicated to serving a specialized (paying) clientelle. Indeed, although the article in TIME touted the Rimm study as proof that pornography was prevalent on the net, Rimm's area of expertise was primarily the use of bulletin boards (not internet access) as a means of selling pornography.

As witness his 1995 publication, in paperback: "The Pornographer's Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men and Make Lots of Money."

As net investigator Brock Meeks pointed out: "It's the ultimate media hack. He's working both sides of the fence. One one hand, Marty is helping the porn operators better market their wares, enabling them to place the stuff more strategically online. And then he writes a study with which he reels in an "exclusive" Time magazine "Cyberporn" cover story decrying the fact that, oh-my-gawd, there's an ever increasing amount of porn online, due in part, to better marketing tactics by adult BBS operators."

The internet firestorm rapidly consumed whatever was left of Rimm's credibility, as various academics published learned critiques of the study which would be sufficient to ensure that no serious journal would ever consider an article by him ever again. TIME recanted in public, admitting that greivous errors had slipped through the net, as their normally thorough research succumbed to a combination of deadline pressure and exclusivity agreements that barred them from showing the unpublished study to possible critics. But by then the damage had been done. The study found its way into the US Senate:

Senator Grassley speaks

Mr.  President, this morning I want to speak on a topic that has received a 
lot of attention around here lately.  My topic is cyberporn, and that is, 
computerized pornography.  I have introduced S.  892, entitled the 
Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act of 1995.

This legislation is narrowly drawn.  It is meant to help protect children 
from sexual predators and exposure to graphic pornography.

Mr.  President, Georgetown University Law School has released a remarkable 
study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.  This study 
raises important questions about the availability and the nature of 
I want to refer to the Carnegie Mellon study, and I want to emphasize that 
this is Carnegie Mellon University.  This is not a study done by some 
religious organization analyzing pornography that might be on computer 

The university surveyed 900,000 computer images.  Of these 900,000 images, 
83.5 percent of all computerized photographs available on the Internet are 
pornographic.  Mr.  President, I want to repeat that: 83.5 percent of the 
900,000 images reviewed -- these are all on the Internet -- are pornographic, 
according to the Carnegie Mellon study.

Now, of course, that does not mean that all of these images are illegal 
under the Constitution.  But with so many graphic images available on 
computer networks, I believe Congress must act and do so in a 
constitutional manner to help parents who are under assault in this day and 
age.  There is a flood of vile pornography, and we must act to stem this 
growing tide, because, in the words of Judge Robert Bork, it incites 
perverted minds.

Exon, Grassley, and the political bandwagon

For a couple of years now, Senator James Exon of Nebraska has been trying to ban free speech in public. Or rather, he keeps trying to tag a bill onto other legislation passing through the US Senate; the goal of his bill, the "Communications Decency Act", is to render it a criminal offense to use any form of indecent or obscene language or transmit any indecent material through any electronic medium.

Few people are willing to say in public that they want to protect the right to use indecent or obscene speech in public. But fewer people, on examining this bill in detail, seem willing to defend it. The Exon bill -- as even its author has admitted under pressure -- is deeply flawed. For example, American law provides no definite test for indecency, much less obscenity; it's a matter left up to the jurisdiction in which the charges are tried. (What is mundane in Menlo Park may carry a three-year prison sentence in Memphis, as Robert and Carleen Thomas discovered when their California-based Amateur Action bulletin board was shut down by blue-nosed officers from Memphis, Tennessee.) Moreover, the Exon bill makes no distinction between private and public speech. Indencency would be as illegal in private correspondence as in public -- opening a huge legislative can of worms. (Few couples who use the internet to carry their personal messages when they are apart can have failed to commit a serious offense under the Exon act.) Finally, the bill would fundamentally contradict the first amendment to the US constitution, which safeguards freedom of speech in general.

As an aside, the passage of the Exon bill, or something similar, may seem remote to British readers. However it is a deadly serious threat to our own more parochial interests. It is quite common for messages from one UK-based network to another to be routed via a number of intermediary networks, some of which are centred in the United States. It is also likely that within the next couple of years, the extraterritorial scope of the internet will lead national governments to sign treaties -- and the state of local ordinances at that time will determine the rather more rigidly observed laws based on international treaties that follow. Once a local law becomes enacted by treaty it becomes notoriously difficult to change, as those European states that have decriminalized the posession of cannabis have discovered when they contemplated outright legalization.

The Exon bill was successfully appended to a bill deregulating the telecoms industry earlier this year. However, the whole bill appears to have foundered on the shoals of American politics. This didn't stop the Christian Coalition and other campaigning groups from raising a hue and cry about pornography on the internet -- especially child pornography, which virtually nobody will defend in public because of sensitivity about the issues surrounding child buse -- and various politicians jumped on the band wagon. US politics is dominated by the recent Republican congressional landslide; the new Republicans having failed to completely take over the country's legislative infrastructure, some of them are now casting around for issues to take over in a bid to cement their popularity with the voting public.

For example, Senator Grassley has jumped on the pornography bandwagon with a bill that purports to make it an offense to supply (or permit the supply of) indecent material to minors over the net. Never mind that supplying porn to kiddies is already an offense in the USA, or that his bill is so badly worded that it effectively outlaws all data compression and encryption software that can be used on image files -- the opportunity for political grand-standing seems to have temporarily outweighed all other considerations. And a piece of research as dubious as the Rimm Report is being used to justify draconian and far-reaching legislation.

The dynamics of a moral panic

The term "moral panic" is one of the more useful concepts to have emerged from sociology over the past years. A moral panic is characterised by a wave of public concern, anxiety, and fervour about some topic, usually perceived as a threat to society. The distinguishing factors are that the level of interest in the topic is totally out of proportion to its real importance, that some individuals build personal careers on the basis of the pursuit and magnification of the issue, and that reasoned debate goes out of the window to be replaced by witch-hunts and hysteria.

It is no exaggeration to say that we're well on the way to seeing a full-blown moral panic over "pornography on the net". Previous moral panics of recent memory included the satanic ritual abuse allegations of the mid- eighties, and the McCarthy Communist witch hunts of the fifties. The current moral panic over the net is the result of a collision between an irresistable force (the promise of infinite communications bandwidth) and an immovable object (the full weight of a society that is based on certain assumptions about the cost of distributing information).

The expression of the moral panic over the net should be obvious. A minority of net users -- mostly young men -- use porn. Porn which is, it should be added, available from other outlets (such as any newsagent). A tinier minority use porn that offends the sensibilities of most people, to the point of being illegal. Some of these people have scanned images and placed them on the net -- and this has been latched onto by journalists hungry for a cheap exclusive, by politicians hungry for an election issue that can make them look as if they're doing something important, and by the lobbyists of the religious right, who like to portray themselves as the embattled defenders of real American family values. Very few people are willing to step forward and defend something with as dingy a reputation as pornography; it makes an excellent target. A lot of press coverage is devoted to it, and a few miscreants are arrested and hung out to dry; meanwhile, laws are passed that are ridiculously unenforceable and that install draconian penalties for everyday activities.

Some sensible and measured responses to the issues of how to manage children on the net have been taken. For example, a number of companies now sell internet news feeds and web proxy access that is vetted in accordance with a list of forbidden topics, so that parents can let their children roam free without worrying too much about them running across something undesirable. And other, simpler, solutions also work: for one thing, just keeping the computer with a family dial-up connection in some public space, like a living room, serves to deter children from poking around in the darker portions of the net. But for some reason, the human urge to meddle and legislate seems immune to the possibilities of such simple solutions. And the lawmakers step in.

Terms of endearment, if sent via email, accumulate years in prison under the Exon bill; use of encryption is tantamount to supplying pornography to children, under the terms of the Grassley bill. This is just the beginning; the internet has begun to intersect with politics, and the circus won't be over until it has become too much a part of everyday life for anyone to get excited about. By which time, the right of free speech may well have been killed off in cyberspace -- in the interests of protecting children who mostly aren't there from pornography that for the most part doesn't exist.

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