Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet, by Douglas Birsch

Obscenity and the Internet

What is the implication of this discussion for the Internet? The Supreme Court has declared that obscenity is low-value speech and is not protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, government can regulate the distribution of obscene materials, including their distribution on the Internet. Based on the philosophical position discussed earlier, there should also be no legitimate objection to the regulation of obscenity if that material offends the community and threatens to produce social unrest, conflict, or indirect harm. There are, however, a couple of problems specific to the Internet which might dictate how that regulation ought to proceed. What "community" relates to the Internet? How is that community supposed to evaluate obscene material with respect to prurience, offensiveness, and lack of value? A second problem is practical. Is it possible to effectively regulate obscene material on the Internet? Effective regulation poses enormous technical problems. The Internet provides a great deal of anonymity for those who want it. Techniques and devices, such as anonymous mailers which forward a file minus any information about its source, allow a sender to shield his or her identity. There are also encryption algorithms which allow files to be encrypted at the source and decoded only by the person at the destination. Finally, there is a huge volume of traffic and files on the Internet. Policing this vast system would represent a formidable and extremely expensive task.

Rather than attempting to regulate the global environment of the Internet, --control can be local.

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