Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: For background on the Internet "Decency" war, see Congressional Deal to Muzzle the Internet in a previous issue.]

True Indecency on the Internet

by David H. Rothman

Tobacco and booze ads spill all over the World Wide Web

Your child can gaze at Internet ads from a Southern tobacconist -- and learn that Madonna, David Letterman, and many other celebrities like to puff away on cigars.

Similarly, young Jason or Jennifer can find out what makes a good smoke ("even burning, easy drawing experience filled with flavors one enjoys"). A fifth-grader can also call up ads touting beer, wine, whiskey or other high-octane beverages.

One brewery gives $1,000 prizes to lucky webmasters who mention The Product in little, magazine-like areas under their control. Tobacco and booze ads may spill all over the World Wide Web, the flashy section of the Net where you can see pictures and hear sound.

Do these examples show that we need to censor the Net under the telecommunications bill that Washington is now considering? Quite the reverse. Instead they illustrate how hard it would be to come up with a censorship scheme to please all. The trick isn't just to define what's "indecent" or "obscene." How about the child-threats, such as the cigar ads, that a "decency" law would not cover?

Politicians leading the movement to control received at least $478,821 in donations from tobacco and alcohol-related interests

Would-be censors of the Internet may protest, "We'll get to these other threats. The Federal Communications Commission could handle these." Still, one wonders how much Washington would act in the public's interest as opposed to those of the usual suspects.

A potential for powerful distractions arises in defining the rules for a new medium. Thirteen politicians leading the movement to control, for example, received at least $478,821 in political donations from political actions committees for the tobacco and alcohol-related interests during a five-year period.

None other than Sen. Jim Exon (D-Nebraska) got at least $12,499 from the tobacco lobby and $15,000 from the booze-boosters between January 1, 1989, and December 31, 1994, according to my compilation of statistics from the Center for Responsive Politics. The money may not been that big in the grand scheme of things, and Exon is leaving the Senate.

But such entanglements show the potential here; Exon is, after all, our homegrown ayatollah who unleashed the current morality jihad with his Communications Decency Act of 1995.

At a grander level, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole enjoyed at least $33,500 from tobacco interests and $42,000 from alcohol-related companies. This would-be net.censor is the Republican front-runner for President and just might appoint FCC commissioners someday.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky.), who, like Dole, co-sponsored the Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act of 1995, got at least $64,750 from the tumor growers. He received $42,672 from the cirrhosis promoters. Surely the vice magnates did not give tens of thousands to Exon, Dole, McConnell and colleagues just for the joy of it; they wanted "access."

Ironically the Senate was the home of Bob Packwood, the oversexed Oregonian whom Dole, up until the last minute, tried to protect. And those people -- yes, gropin' Bob was one of 84 pro-decency Senators in a vote last June -- want to tell us how to live? Would that H.L. Mencken could write up this circus!

A New York family could screen out the tobacco ads while letting a 13-year-old daughter buy an electronic edition of Catcher in the Rye, and Kentuckians could do the reverse

Other reasons, too, exist to avoid letting hypocritical prudes set the tone for the electronic commons -- for example, the prospect that a Net publisher might go to jail for selling a high school senior an "indecent" classic like J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."

In fact, ayatollahs on the bench could theoretically fine or jail me if certain sections of my new book went out over the network it describes. Most of my book, NetWorld! is Disney-clean. But I do quote the colorful insult that a New York Times writer delivered against the sex organs of people who flamed him on the Net.

And elsewhere, while reporting someone else's views on the censorship imbroglio, I use the F-word. Does this mean I'd face a fine of up to $100,000 or a jail term of as much as two years, the penalties most often talked about? What will Washington do next, try to ban the paper version of my book?

As it happens, NetWorld! lambastes Bill Clinton's copyright policy toward the Net. Will Washington single out us government critics for prosecution for "indecency?" Commendably, even Clinton's Justice Department has noted the difficulties of enforcing "decency" standards. But what about the future?

If nothing else, Washington would find it a nightmare to control the thousands of discussions areas online. Many of their participants aren't even in the U.S. The Danes, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and French do not live by Nebraskan sexual standards, thank you.

Conversely, high-tech columnist Larry Magid has noted that nations with strict morality could jail visiting Americans for past postings; yes, Internet software often lets you track down old messages.

So how can we protect America's children from tobacco, booze and smut without flouting common sense or our democratic traditions? Parental vigilance is key. If you're extra-worried about your child, disable the computer physically or with software -- so he or she can use it only when you're home.

That's just one of the technical answers out there. Net users can also buy products such as SurfWatch which prevent most young children from viewing the wrong parts of the World Wide Web. Some of the master techies behind the Web, moreover, are working on the Platform for Internet Content Selection.

The PICS standard would allow parents to choose from many rating services -- including, potentially, one run by the Christian Coalition. That way a New York family could screen out the tobacco ads while letting a 13-year-old daughter buy an electronic edition of Catcher in the Rye. Kentuckians could do the reverse, as, indeed, should be their right.

If implemented well, such an empowering technology could win widespread support on the Internet. Millions of Net users are parents, too, and simply want more balance and less hypocrisy from Washington than they have gotten so far.

David H. Rothman is the author of "NetWorld! What People Are Really Doing on the Internet -- and What It Means to You."

Albion Monitor January 31, 1996 (

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