Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet, by Douglas Birsch

Local Control of Information

In view of the problem of global control of obscenity on the Internet, the strategy for dealing with obscene material Internet needs to be oriented towards household control and control by operators of services; e.g., Compuserve and America Online. Government control would not be effective. This strategy would avoid the problem of identifying the relevant "community" since households and services would constitute their own communities. There would still be the problem of creating standards for obscene material related to offensiveness and lack of value. On the household level, I doubt if parents would have a problem with this, but operators of services might be hesitant to create standards and then interpret whether or not specific material violated those standards. While this might be a difficult and inconvenient task for services, I think there is an economic advantage to it. Many customers would value this regulation and it might make the service attract more users. If this approach were followed, commercial services could make public the standards of their "community" and consumers could use a service which matched their own standards. Obscene material would not be available on some commercial services, and parents could protect their children by using one of these.

The technology problem is more difficult, but is being addressed in ways that are appropriate for systems and local control. Software is available which allows parents to block their childrens' access to obscene materials. Surfwatch Software Inc. markets a program called Surfwatch which monitors the TCP/IP data stream looking for universal resource locators listed in its database of sexually explicit sites. When users attempt to access sites in the database, access is denied. Later this year, Surfwatch will market Surfmanager, a tool to allow parents or network administrators to manually add URLs to the database. 12 Systems operators can also restrict access to inappropriate sites. The commercial services, such as America Online, have online blocks. Thus, to some extent, the technology is available to regulate obscenity on the Internet, at least with respect to children and users of commercial services. Using this household and services strategy might alleviate the technical problem.

But, --what is pornography on the Internet?

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