Masthead CMC Magazine August 1, 1995 / Page 3


Publishing on the Edge

by Lisa Schmeiser (

Once the Internet's dirty little secret, "obscene" content moved to the front of the Senate's agenda this year when the Communications Decency bill was introduced. A spate of articles followed detailing where the Wild Thing is on the Internet, and exploring the big-business options for sex online.

However, there is a large, but largely unnoticed, population on the World Wide Web that will feel the effects of any "decency" legislation more acutely than their commercial counterparts. Lacking the deep pockets and legal arsenal of Playboy or Penthouse, members of this population maintain sites targeted as "offensive" for a variety of reasons--but not for profit. What makes these people invest time and effort into flame-inducing, surfwatch-banning work? What do they think they're contributing to the online world?


Some of the Web authors interviewed are following the 'Net tradition of grassroots activism, others are out to make a point, and some, like Wayne Hudson, publisher of Hornball's Own Level of Hell, maintain a site "just for my own entertainiment."

Activists Sarah Berg and Alice Ray maintain their web site Reclaiming the Erotic as an effort to use the Internet as "an unprecedented opportunity to involve a global community in reclaiming and redefining the erotic."

Justin Hull publishes his s e x site as the result of a long-held ambition to be a writer. Jef Poskanzer built his Nude of the Month site as a challenge to the WELL administration to deal with a popular page on their server; his page now accounts for roughly 35 percent of the WELL's hits. Jennifer Cearley built her Naked Men site "because I was sick and tired of looking at naked women pages. I just wanted to even things up a bit."

"Don't hate the media. Become the media."

--Jello Biafra (formerly of the band Dead Kennedys. Successfully fought an attempt to prosecute him, the group, and various record distributors over the inclusion of an allegedly obscene miniposter by Austrian master surrealist painter, H. R. Giger, in one of their albums.)

Mainstream print media is largely responsible for some of the recent controversy, charge a few of the site authors. Poskanzer said his site was featured on the front page of a newspaper as an example of "yet another standard hand-wringing 'porn-on-the-net' story."

"I don't think my site contributes to the obscenity charges made toward the Internet," CyberQueer Lounge webmaster Tom Hicks said. "The people who make those charges in the government or the media are not bright enough to know how to use the Internet. Historically, (the government) makes claims with no evidence; the media takes it up."

Explicit Sites as Online Activism

Do these sites contribute to the "danger online" that media, most prominently Newsweek and Time, have written about? For some web authors, the controversy isn't about whether or not pornography should be online, but what sexually explicit materials should be considered pornographic.

"I am contributing to the controversy because I provide examples of hip, healthy sexuality online. I think I provide a positive role model for obscene publishers. I put sexuality on context by talking about eating disorders when I mention the Penthouse page, or by mentioning sex with my ex-girlfriend in the context of the whole relationship," said Hull.

Berg and Ray said their site doesn't contribute to the controversy, but to a resolution of the fundamental question: what is obscene? They see their site as providing a forum for people to define what "obscene" means, and as presenting "a concrete, positive alternative which is clearly oriented toward adults without being obscene."

"I really don't see a problem (with my site)," said Hudson. "My thinking is, I've warned you about the content. If you proceed, it's your choice. It's your choice whether you want to see it or not."

Critics have charged that the proceed-at-your-own caution attitude exposes minors to pornography and lurking pedophiles. Web authors have countered by saying their sites provide important opportunities for parents and children to discuss the dangers of child molestation, and for society to understand the problem of peodphilia.

"There are undoubtedly a small percentage of people on the Internet--as there are in the rest of society--who are predatory pedophiles. These people will not get better and they will use every chance they have to get access to kids," said Berg and Ray.

"As in the rest of society, we can predict that they are far more likely to be found inserting themselves into wholesome situations where they have access to kids. Thus it's especially important for parents to monitor their kids' participation in chat rooms and game oriented groups where these people are most likely to hang out, and to give kids a clear set of safety rules for the net, just as they should do for other areas of their children's lives."

Berg and Ray also noted that the Internet only highlights the "ugly American fact" that child sexual exploitation happens "at the hands of people children know and trust."

Hull said, "I am a guide, not a guardian. We can't make (pedophilia) go away, we might as well be honest about it, and listen to what these people are saying.

"Dialog, not suppression. Reading the pedophile site gives me the impression that these people are chronic. You can't really make them go away...if the parents are really that freaked out about it, they should talk to their children and tell them why they don't want them boinking the neighbor. Banning the material won't prevent child sexual abuse."

Hull's site includes the section: "on the net only: equal time for pedophilia." The chart of links following features both the No More Victims archive, a site geared toward breaking the cycle of child abuse, and the Pedosexual Resources Directory, a smorgasborg of URLs, age-consent legal information, and "scientific" evidence claiming children are sexual initiators. Hull notes that the PDR was recently shut down due to excessive popularity.

To Link Or Not To Link?

In addition to hostile legislation, the self-published, controversial sites must now contend with bans from watchdog software. When the Communications Decency Act first came to the Senate floor, a flurry of computer industry operatives announced that the solution to smut on the 'Net was not in restricting content, but restricting access. Free speech advocates and wireheads hailed the solution as one which would preserve the publishing rights most webizens enjoy.

In the Editor's page of this magazine last month, John December wrote:

"..information providers, by voluntarily registering their URLs with blocking services (and blocking services working aggressively to discover their target content) can help maintain a free and open Internet with individuals choosing their level of participation."

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? [See this month's editor's page -- Ed.]

For example, Surfwatch promises to dam "the flood of sexual material on the Internet" by compiling lists of keywords--over 200 and growing--that lead to sexual material. CyberQueer, Reclaiming the Erotic, and s e x are all listed under Surfwatch. Although gay activists have protested Surfwatch's blanket banning of gay sites, Hicks signed up CyberQueer to hamper the threat of legal prosecution. Hull calls Surfwatch "commercial censorship" on his site, and warns, "They do not take steps to inform publishers of blocked pages ... There is no established mechanism for providers to find out their content is blocked."

Hull's complaint touches on another issue in the decency debate: web publishers have very little control over who visits their site, and who provides links to it. Responding to the question: would you screen your content if you knew your site was only a few clicks away from a kid-friendly one, Poskanzer replied, "I'm not responsible for other people's links." Hicks takes that sentiment even further: "People under 18 are the property of those that own them."

Web sites have added another dimension to the question of how much control a publisher has over her or his work. Hull's note that he wasn't told of his Surfwatch status and Poskanzer's declaration that he can't control who links to his site are reminders of the civil and technical impediments which stand in the way of a screening process.

Let's Talk About Sex@_____: Computer Mediated Communication as a Forum for Frank Talk

Hull, Berg, and Ray see their web sites as aiding computer-mediated communication in a subject few are comfortable discussing in any medium. "We see our sites contributing (to CMC) in several ways. It serves as a repository and feedback mechanism for people to communicate their subjective experience of the erotic. In this way the site functions to build community around an issue that, at the public level, normally incites divisiveness and dogmatism." said Berg and Ray.

"Reading about someone's sexual problems and proposed solutions--I can't imagine that would be considered dangerous to the moral fibre of the Internet," said Hull, whose site includes fiction and nonfiction detailing his past love life, a survey of sex sites on the Web, and an advice column. "If people have these problems, and feel I can offer them advice, then I am happy to do so. If these issues are on (people's) minds, I would rather have folks bring them out into the open, and get a dose of my self-proclaimed healthy attitude, than sit around and feel dirty.

"The Internet could open some minds, and free some souls. People who think they're weird can find out they're not, and lead happier lives for it--unless we decide they're deviant and dangerous, and we drive their voices underground. In that case, we will continue to alienate our sexuality."

Hicks views CMC as the key to resolving the civil liberties issues that surround obscenity charges at large. "I have viewed (CMC) as the nuclear weapon on the battlefield of human rights and dignity for all people everywhere. I view the WWW as the old Grange Hall days of people working together. The WWW works because people link together; they work together. This is the greatest threat ever invented to government."

Will the government, or private-industry watchdogs, reduce that threat through legislation or restricted access? How the Web struggles with the trans-medium obscenity debate, and how computer mediated communication will be affected, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: grassroots publishing is alive and well on the WWW, and people will continue to publish what they--not the government or a private company--see fit to disseminate. [CMC TOC]

Lisa Schmeiser is a M.S. student in Technical Communication. Currently working in Washington, D.C., she is seeking a writing job that will allow her to continue exploring the legal developments affecting computer technology, the Internet, and 'Net culture. Visit her resume for details.

Copyright © 1995 by Lisa Schmeiser. All Rights Reserved.

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