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Alt.Sex.Bondage Is Closed. Should We Be Scared?


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ALT.SEX.BONDAGE IS CLOSED. SHOULD WE BE SCARED?

The Net is fast becoming a global free-speech battleground

Bondage. Blondes. Bestiality. Even Barney. (Don't ask.) Subscribers to CompuServe Inc. could indulge all these passions and more--until Dec. 28. Then, without warning, the online service provider cut off access to more than 200 such forums and picture databases distributed over the Internet. Pornography was not computing.

It was a defining moment in cyberspace, where information providers and distributors are hurtling toward a series of confrontations that could reshape their intellectual, moral, and commercial boundaries. As millions of people around the globe plug into the Internet and commercial online services, many governments--unnerved by the prospect of uncontrolled, grass-roots communications--are readying their regulatory guns.

FLASH POINT. That much became clear with the CompuServe incident. The company acted after a German state prosecutor's office said it was breaking the law by allowing access to child pornography. Although its customers still can get to the banned forums by dialing directly into the Internet, the decision sparked a furor among free-speech advocates and in the online community. "It really does start you down a slippery slope," says Esther Dyson, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a political action group. "Now it's indecency; when does it become political speech?"

More international tangles are taking shape. In China, where the number of Internet users jumped from 3,000 to 100,000 last year, the government is cracking down on "spiritual pollution" in the form of pornography and antigovernment material entering the country via the Internet. Data-line licenses in Jordan bar service providers from "indecent" content. And telecommunications-reform legislation in the U.S. includes a provision that would make it a criminal offense to transmit material deemed indecent over the Net.

Pornography is the first flash point in an inevitable clash of cultures forced by the borderless Internet. There is no easy way to tailor Net content for a particular country or geographic area--as CompuServe found when it was forced to shut off access to all subscribers to satisfy German law. As a result, many Net proponents fear that the lowest common denominator will prevail. "Differences in community standards--whether state to state or country to country--pose a real threat that freedom of expression will get nibbled down to nothing," says David D. Redell, an executive committee member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Palo Alto, Calif.

WATCHING CONGRESS. Still to come: a Pandora's box of multinational issues involving taxation, intellectual property, and privacy. For example, government policies on data encryption vary widely, hampering the development of a worldwide standard that would spur electronic commerce and, ironically, keep adult content such as pornography out of sight of minors. How governments respond to these challenges could determine the Net's commercial viability. Censorship would "take what could be a major business and a major opportunity and stunt its growth," says David J. Farber, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania and an Internet pioneer.

Not all countries will follow Germany's example. "I do not foresee any censorship on porn," says Joy Marino, president of the Italian Internet Assn. Many Net denizens favor technological alternatives to censorship: Already, a number of software programs let parents filter what children can access. In any case, many governmental solutions will be frustrated by the Internet's sheer breadth. Attempts by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to create electronic barriers to certain Internet sites have proved leaky.

For now, many countries are watching to see whether the U.S. Congress' actions will stand up. Experts predict that any legislation prohibiting transmission of "indecent material" will go to the courts, where it will be found unconstitutional. That may not stop countries with weaker free-speech protections from trying to control the Internet. But they're not likely to succeed: Online communication is hard to track and harder still to stop.By Amy Cortese in New York, with John Carey in Washington, David Woodruff in Bonn, and bureau reportsReturn to top


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