Masthead CMC Magazine August 1, 1995 / Page 2


Editor's Page

by John December (

The Latest Internet Showdown

Not since the Green Card Lawyers thread last summer have the Internet's newsgroups, discussion lists, and Web pages all been awash with a single issue. Time magazine's July 3rd cover story raised the attention of many on the Net. Time senior editor for technology, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, wrote an article called "ON A SCREEN NEAR YOU: CYBERPORN," which portrayed pornography on the Internet as "pervasive" based mainly on a study, "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway," by Marty Rimm.

The rest is best covered at the following two Web site collections:

The Issues

Time ran a followup article on July 24th by Elmer-DeWitt in which he admits that there have been serious criticisms of the Rimm study. But, as he concludes, he hopes the criticisms of the Rimm study will not obscure "the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet."

Indeed, the very phrase "hard-core porn on the Internet" has to be examined. What methodologies can researchers use to realistically address this issue? Counts of Usenet postings only give surface figures: perhaps less than a half of one percent of Internet traffic contains pornography--but is this true? And what does it mean? And the question of how is this "traffic" is being used is a larger question.

A Solution: Reality plus Individual Responsibility

Ultimately, public policy needs to be made based on a more realistic look at the Net: is it awash in pornography, or is it like an American community, with a variety of images and voices, all of which don't necessarily agree? This public policy, most importantly, has to recognize its powerlessness with regard to regulating cyberspace content: the Net has no political boundaries, regardless of the laws the U.S. Congress may pass.

Along with public officials, information providers and publishers of any material on the Net can face the reality of the Net:

  1. No one on the Net owes anyone attention.
  2. For freedom of expression to occur, users need the freedom to not pay attention to any Net content (for themselves, not as part of blanket censorship).

My opinion is that a wonderful solution is personal responsibility. Simply put: individuals are responsible for their choices for engaging in Net communication. Parents are responsible for guiding their children. Software that helps parents and teachers to set guidelines for blocking Internet content is part of this solution. Content providers might not like being "censored" in this way, but a free market of ideas requires that users ultimately have control over their participation and their choices, by whatever means they choose. Blocking software for Net content gives people those choices without requiring impossible and restrictive censorship for everyone.

Lisa Schmeiser in her excellent article, "Publishing on the Edge," leading off this month's issue's coverage, asks: "But do technological blocking systems really help maintain a free and open Internet? And how much control do individuals have over the nature of their participation?"

I do not know if blocking systems will help maintain a free and open Internet. I hope so, before the US Congress tries a ham-handed solution. I hope the CMC research community develops ways to assess the experience of users in Net activities, so that intelligent public policy as well as user guidelines can be established.

In my view, individuals are responsible for themselves. On the Net, every individual has the responsibility to educate himself or herself about the technology, culture, and communities on it. I hope that participating on the Net continues to demand such personal responsiblity from everyone. [CMC TOC]

Resources for Controversial Online Material / Censorship

John December is editor/publisher of Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine and is just completing work on some more books about the Web.

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