The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Porn Ban Risks On-Line Censorship

It's an age-old battle: the right of individuals to say and do what they wish versus the right of the community to regulate what is acceptable and what is not. In this country, fortunately, the First Amendment has traditionally assured that free speech usually wins out.

But a bill introduced by Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) would force Americans to leave their First Amendment rights behind when they enter cyberspace. The aim of the legislation is to stop pornography, but the result would be to grant the government broad license to censor everything from on-line group discussions to private electronic mail.

The bill (S-314) takes a seemingly innocuous approach: It would simply amend the Communications Act of 1934 to replace the word "telephone" with "telecommunications equipment," so that provisions pertaining to obscene or harassing telephone calls would also apply to messages posted on electronic bulletin boards and in discussion groups.

It would impose fines of up to $100,000 and prison sentences of up to two years on anyone who "makes, transmits, or otherwise makes available any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent." According to a press release from Exon's office, the bill would "stop porn on the info-superhighway."

But the price would be astronomical. While some Internet news groups and adult bulletin boards contain material many people find offensive, there also are discussions of religion, art, science, culture, medicine, politics and just about every other subject. Who is to determine what is or is not obscene, especially on networks that transcend local, state and national borders?

I worry that some overzealous prosecutor, anywhere in the country, might use this law to go after a discussion of reproductive rights, birth control, abortion, gay rights or any other intensely debated subject. An illustration showing the proper use of a condom could fall into the bill's definition of lewdness.

And, while I applaud Sen. Exon's desire to prosecute those who deliberately harass others, simply extending the terms of the Communications Act of 1934 to the on-line world of the 21st Century doesn't translate. There are major differences between making a harassing or obscene phone call and posting a photo on an adult bulletin board. People who receive unwanted obscene calls are victims. People who seek out sexually explicit material on bulletin boards are willing participants.

Exon's office justifies the measure as a means of protecting children, and I agree it's important to keep certain types of material out of the hands of juveniles. But parents have other ways to protect their children, including old-fashioned parental involvement and supervision. I have strong feelings on this issue, which is why I wrote the booklet "Child Safety on the Information Highway," which you can order, for free, by calling the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678.

Taken to its logical extreme, the child protection argument could justify banning all sorts of adult-content books and magazines, most R-rated and X-rated movies and an increasing number of TV and radio talk shows. To deny adults access to material that would be inappropriate for children is Draconian and extremely dangerous.

A more creative solution would be to work with the on-line services and Internet providers. Give parents the ability to block certain news groups, as some services already do. Ultimately, the solution lies within each family. I don't want the government telling me what I can read or dictating what is or isn't appropriate for my children.

The global nature of on-line communications makes this legislation particularly dangerous. The concept of community standards--central to the legal definition of obscenity--is impossible to define on a worldwide network. We've already seen a federal court in Memphis convict a bulletin board operator in the San Francisco Bay Area for transmitting material that may not have been considered obscene by San Francisco standards.

I also worry that the United States would be creating a precedent that could be used against us by other governments. What is to stop a court of law in, say, Singapore or Iran from prosecuting an American citizen over the posting of material that, according to that country's customs or laws, may be considered obscene? Imagine stepping off a plane in a foreign country only to be arrested by local officials because your name appeared on a "wanted" list for something you once posted on an Internet discussion group. It could happen.

Finally, some people in the on-line industry fear that such a law could be applied to private e-mail between consenting adults, or, in the case of a posting on a public bulletin board, it could hold responsible both the person posting the material and the board's operator. Exon's office says he does not intend it to apply to private e-mail between consenting adults, that its target is material on public bulletin boards, and in such a case the penalties would be applied only to the originator of the message, not the service carrying it.

About the only happy news about this legislation is that it still has a long way to go to become law. It has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee, and Exon will probably try to attach it to a broad telecommunications reform bill, as he did last year. The future of the broader legislation is uncertain at best.

Those of us who are concerned thus have time to let Exon and other legislators know how we feel, and hopefully assure that this dangerous legislation is never enacted.

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Computer File welcomes your comments. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or message magid@latimes.com on the Internet or KPVN58A on Prodigy.

FORUM

As more and more people connect to on-line computer services and the Internet, an important debate has developed over freedom of speech in cyberspace. In today's Computer File column, Lawrence J. Magid discusses what he considers to be a dangerous legislative proposal aimed at controlling on-line obscenity. Several current court cases are raising the issue of whether the operator of an on-line service can be held responsible under civil law for comments made in an on-line forum. And many are concerned that computer networks have become a new medium for defrauders, pornographers and hate groups.

The Cutting Edge is interested in your views. Are any sort of restrictions on on-line speech appropriate? Should on-line services or bulletin board operators be responsible for supervising their networks? Are legislators showing themselves too eager to get involved in regulating the on-line world--or are cyberspace denizens simply too sensitive about such matters?

Send e-mail to edge@news.la times.com, or to RARA89E on TimesLink and Prodigy. Send faxes to (213) 237-7837, or mail to Cutting Edge, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include your name and telephone number. We will publish a selection of responses next week.

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