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CYBERCULTURE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / TERRY SCHWADRON

Freedom vs. Filth on the Internet

March 10, 1997|TERRY SCHWADRON

Whereas the Supreme Court later this month will hear arguments over the Communications Decency Act, and whereas the justices likely want to hear from one who is looking at the Net, now comes this unsolicited friend-of-the-court brief.

Honorable Justices, thanks for agreeing to settle this issue.

Although some may worry that folks are lining up to publish "indecent" Internet content for children, I happen to agree with the lower court decisions on this question: The law should be overturned because it is overly vague and in conflict with guaranteed freedoms of speech.

And I agree that the law as passed is almost impossible to enforce.

I know that the cases you usually weigh involve great issues of fact and broad issues of policy. By contrast, you ought to be able to settle this one in a single sitting and take the rest of the day looking at what's being published electronically.

For anyone not familiar with the question, the Communications Decency Act would impose penalties of up to two years in prison and fines on individuals who use a computer network in a way that would give minors access to "indecent" material that "depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

I'd argue that the attempt to cleanse the Internet skipped many legal definitions that would make it enforceable or even understandable.

From what I can gather, the fear that children will somehow trip across digital pornography is enough reason for the Congress to run roughshod over constitutional freedoms.

Despite my government's reservations, I thought I should look at the issue directly. So I set out on a journey among triple-X sites.

Needless to say, my computer spit back thousands of choices.

I'll skip naming the destinations, but trust me, if you want raw, in-your-face images, words, movies, sound clips and very specific adult entertainment, the Internet is the place for you.

Most of what the hottest sex sites say is erotic is, well, somewhere between you've-got-to-be-kidding and exhausting just to consider.

Images mostly feature women--mostly white or Asian women--posing or performing in an endless parade of exhibitionism.

There is no mistaking it: This is way beyond published magazines. It is enough for the faint of heart to stay away. There seemed to be no end to the combinations of coupling and imaginative lurid display.

*

But somewhere along this electronic route to instant moral decline, I made a discovery.

As many sites as I could call up stopped me and asked me to verify that I was over 18 years old. Often I was asked more than once or twice. Many asked for a credit card or verification from a third party like Adult Check. Only then, supposedly, would I be allowed into steamy inner sanctums of hot adult entertainment. Some sites offered a checkoff to deny access for my children.

Still, once I said I was of legal age, there was no check and no penalty for lying. It's as easy as asking an older sibling to buy beer.

At most sites, there were free sample pictures, small but explicit.

Then I was asked to cough up money. Most of these sites I saw were come-ons for pay-for-sex phone lines, for subscriptions, for the purchase of sex products. These sites are businesses.

For comparison's sake, I decided to check out some other areas that I consider "indecent" to see if there was an equivalent age limit.

Dialing up the Stormfront page or the Aryan Nations page is as easy as asking to see the Los Angeles Times.

No one asked for my age or restricted in any way files that outline how to hate, that suggest that the Holocaust was a hoax or that linked me with like-minded groups.

I searched for information about nuclear bombs without disclosing age and visited a couple of right-wing militia sites without interference.

*

Now, Honorable Justices, I think there are questions aplenty here that should make you stop this law from taking effect.

Clearly, there is no single standard of what is "indecent," or who should decide.

We don't know what constitutes "community" when information is being shared globally. Certainly Danish standards differ from Saudi standards.

But I'm really struck by the impracticality of it all. We basically want to keep pornography away from minors.

And the pornographers seem to agree. They appear to have decided that they can do business best when they ask for age verification.

I'm left with the question of who is protecting whom.

It sounds a bit like Jonathan Swift, but maybe we can ask the Supreme Court for a more radical, if ridiculous approach: Maybe the Supreme Court could recommend that rather than this law, Congress instead outlaw lying about age--under penalty of being kept a minor indefinitely.

Apparently the Cook Islands in the South Pacific have just such an arrangement for people who violate environmental laws. If you are caught eating underage crabs, you can be stripped of "adult" privileges by a court.

If as individuals we want help at keeping digital pornography out of the home, there is a plethora of software filters now available, plus Internet access companies and commercial online services that will meet our needs.

The marketplace has considered the question and come forth with alternatives.

Let's recognize the adoption of the Communications Decency Act as salve for politicians who want an easy answer. For me, freedom of expression is sacrosanct; it is a basic tenet of who we are.

A slap at the 1st Amendment does not deserve your support.

Terry Schwadron is editor of Life & Style and oversees latimes.com, The Times' Web site. He can be reached via e-mail at terry.schwadron@latimes.com

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