Masthead CMC Magazine August 1, 1995 / Page 6


Why the "Big Three" Are Lying Low

by Amelia DeLoach (

"It's the content, stupid," a Carvellian aphorism might read in response to the latest First Amendment brouhaha to hit a town that has provided the general press more sex-related controversies than Playboy, Hustler, and Penthouse. The latest Washington D.C. sex epic features U.S. Congressmen debating The Communications Decency Act of 1995, which attempts to set parameters on what shouldn't be allowed to exist in the ethereal world of cyberspace, especially when this content can affect children. What seems odd about this whole uproar is that it focuses on pornography and the Freedom of Speech and neither Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse nor any of the other major purveyors of female nudity are in the middle of the fray. After all, ever since the invention of the scanner, illegally scanned images of their photographs began filling up the bandwidth of servers around the world. Yet for once, they seem oddly ...well ... traditional.

A visit to their sites reveals the stock fare readers expect the magazines to carry. Depending on when you log in you might find a scantilly-clad woman on Playboy's site as well as an image you can download if you want to see more of her. Hustler provides readers with small photographs of nude women and download rights for members. Penthouse, meanwhile, is the only one providing multiple views of its babe-of-the-month, including the age-old "crotch shot," to viewers willing to endure long download times.

Of course the customary content of the mainline magazines doesn't condone or promote pedophilia, which is the passion point of the latest debate. But neither are these magazines intending to ruffle users' sensibilities with their presentations on the new electronic medium provided by the WWW. "We're laying low," said Jim Petersen, a senior staff writer who has written for Playboy for over 20 years. "We're trying to figure out how to do it (Web publishing) well. We don't want to be hot and bankrupt." Presently, the Playboy site is a "billboard" that's being used as a public relations vehicle. While candid about the magazine's cautious approach, Petersen is also quick to note that much of the pornographic content on the Web, including some of the child pornography included in the now highly discredited research by Martin Rimm, is "just recycled old stuff. ...We don't have an increase in child exploitation." What's different, he says, is the medium.

Keith Ferrell, senior vice president and director of online and Internet service for Penthouse publisher General Media, agrees that the once esoteric Internet now attracts wide public interest and that's fanning Washington's reaction. "I think the brouhaha is related to the explosion of the technology more than it is any one publication," he said, noting that the issue is being prompted by a number of factors, not the least of which are the views of many who fear the technology for whatever reason and dismiss the technology because of what they perceive its content to be. For others, it's the lack of legal controls over the Internet. "Some people, including the Speaker of the House, have pointed out that this is an uncontrollable technology," Mr. Ferrell said. While some legislators want to control the content of the medium, the speaker has stated that he doesn't want to hamper its development by placing, what would probably be, gratuitous legislation on it. However, Petersen is skeptical about the Speaker "rallying his boys" and blocking the decency legislation when it comes up for a House vote in August. Members of the House won't "back what could be considered to be porn," he said frankly.

But while legislators take on the theoretical "what if" aspects of the medium, developers of the online porn magazines remain pragmatic about the Internet as a business outlet and undecided on what legal constraints might do to the medium as a whole. At present, business acumen dictates that it's unnecessary for the mainline porn magazines to stir up a controversy to advertise one's presence. "There's a lot of people on the Net, ...word travels fast so it's not like we really have to promote ourselves," said Randy Addington, president of On-Line Productions which manages the Hustler site. Spicing up the content of their non-paying site would also prove pointless, he added. "It would cause more traffic and it wouldn't generate more money."

Presently, Hustler's subscriber-only site contains its racier photographs and remains largely inaccessible to children, Addington said. "You can assume the subscriber is at least 18 years of age because they have to have a credit card to subscribe." Thus far, the credit card system has worked. While the Hustler site has been on the Web for only about three months, the magazine has operated a direct dial service for almost two years. During that time callers under the age of 18 have subscribed "only three or four times," Mr. Addington said. In addition to requiring a credit card, Hustler sends an authorization code via email back to the subscriber. Thus, the combination "weeds out the children except the extremely inventive ones ... and I'm sure they're severely punished," he said. For parents concerned about what their children see on the Web, he recommends restricting access to certain sites with software that filters out sites specified by the parent.

Petersen points to similar parental showdowns when inquisitive young people called 1-900-dial-a-porn sites and ran up their parents phone bills. "Dial-a-porn was a good indicator as to what your child was doing because the charge for the call showed up on your phone bill," Mr. Petersen said. "There were a lot of tanned hides over that one ... as there should be."

Because of Hustler's approach to putting porn on the Web and the porn-as-you-expect-it content, Addington says he's not worried about legal repercussions even if the Exon bill becomes law. "Our attorneys have gone over the Exon Bill and have told us as long as we keep on doing what we're doing ... we're OK." Ferrell says Penthouse is developing a pay site, much like Hustler's, and thus he doesn't foresee his magazine experiencing any major legal battles over content either.

But Playboy's Peterson, has concerns that if the bill becomes law it would place contradictory regulations over print and on- line mediums that will affect the medium as a whole. For instance, he researched a book on people's best sexual experiences by posting questions to Usenet groups. Respondents sent him private email messages describing their experiences which he is compiling into the book, "365 Ways to Improve Your Sex Life," due out next spring. As he sees it, if the book goes online he could possibly go to jail if the decency act becomes law. If the book goes into print and stocks bookstore shelves "no one goes to jail," he adds.

Ferrell is also concerned about the broad implications of The Communications Decency Act. "I think the issue is larger than what happens to our site ... it's one more thing that will cause the government problems and cause it to get caught up in litigation." Ferrell, Petersen, and Addington all are mindful of the loose legal definition of obscenity which allows individual communities to decide what is obscene.

"It is indeed a tricky issue ... you can find things that will offend anyone," Ferrell said.

Petersen agrees. "What is indecent? It's the old court rule, `I know it when I see it.' ...But who gets to decide what's decent?" [CMC TOC]

Amelia DeLoach is Link Editor and a news correspondent for CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1995 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

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