Cybersmut & Media Hysteria
I was six and mainly concerned with Legos and tree-climbing, and then one day an older boy from the neighborhood showed me a picture in a magazine. I clearly remember the image and how confused it made me. Understand that my parents were hippies and practiced full disclosure, so I had a pretty good idea of what sex was all about. But I realize now when I saw that magazine picture, I was like a medical-school student who hasn't yet cut into his cadaver. I understood the basics, where all the organs were located and what purpose they served, but I had no idea how messy a proposition it could be. The magazine picture involved a man and woman who appeared to me, at the time, to be playing leapfrog. Only they were both naked, and the man wore an expression that made him look like he'd just been shot in the back. Eventually, I caught on. By the time I was 13, I had my very own collection of pornographic material. It consisted of a deck of oversized playing cards, each with a different matronly-looking naked woman on its face. As far as pornography goes, it was pretty tame, low-tech stuff. But I played a lot of solitaire. Now everything has changed. Kids today no longer have to rely on that older neighborhood boy to introduce them to pornography. While they'll still stumble upon that stray magazine with the weathered pages lying in the alley, there's a greater chance kids will see their first confusing picture of a man and woman right in their own homes. The whole human sexual experience, from the silly to the sordid, from the erotic to the repulsive, can now be found on the Internet and accessed with a computer and modem. Of course, most of us missed the porno revolution. Computer screens have been sizzling with sex for years. But only in the past few months have senators and concerned parents seemed to notice. When they did notice, though, they wasted no time in scurrying up the bell tower and sounding the alarm signaling the end of civilization. The reason it took them so long to figure out what's going on has a lot to do with an older generation's fear of a new technology it doesn't understand. They clamor so because the media thrive on that fear. And the fear took flesh in a blue book that belongs to a senator from Nebraska. James Exon does not look like a man you'd call with a question about hypertext transfer protocol. So it's not surprising that when the seventy-three-year-old senator needed to find some juicy pictures on the Internet last month to shock his colleagues into supporting an amendment he authored, Exon had his staff download the images for him. Follow me on this: The man gets the idea in his head that there are dirty pictures on the Net. So he tells his staff, younger folks who know how to use computers, "Go get me some dirty computer pictures." And lo and behold, the senator gets a blue binder filled with dirty pictures. Never mind that Exon hasn't a clue what processes were involved in downloading those pictures; fact is, he winds up with pictures of women having sex with German shepherds. So he says to himself, "This Internet is filth. It's got pictures on it of women having sex with German shepherds. We've got to stop this!" And that's exactly what he told the Senate, with God and C-Span as his witnesses. And once the other senators got a private look-see at his now-famous blue book in the Senate cloakroom, they voted 86-14 in favor of the Communications Decency Act, which attempts to apply to the Internet the same definition of "indecent" with which the Federal Communications Commission governs the airwaves. This would mean an electronic message that contains one of the "seven dirty words" could land it's sender in jail. The amendment would also criminalize communications deemed "annoying." In essence, the Senate voted to kill something it doesn't understand. Have you seen the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still? A friendly space alien played by Michael Rennie comes to earth to warn humans of the peril of fiddling with nuclear weapons. But the G-men freak out because they've never met an alien before and don't understand them, so they shoot him. Well, Exon and his posse are the G-men, and they're shooting at the friendly space alien. People who actually have e-mail addresses and understand the Internet can't decry the amendment loudly enough. Senator Patrick Leahy, who introduced a sensible alternative to Exon's measure (which the Senate ignored), said, "It's obvious there are only a half dozen [senators] who have used the Internet. I think they should at least attempt to understand what it is before they attempt to legislate it." Even Newt Gingrich, who rides the support of the religious right like he's got glue on his butt, told a caller on a cable-TV talk show, "I think it [Exon's amendment] has no meaning and no real impact. It is clearly a violation of free speech, and it's a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other." John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, summed it up best for Newsweek: "They are a government of the completely clueless, trying to impose their will on a place they do not understand, using a means they do not possess." Cybersmut! Cyberporn! Cybersleaze! We media types love to invent compound words beginning with "cyber." And we love to wallow in the sump of sensationalism. Knowing that many parents feel uncomfortable in this new Information Age and smelling their fear on the wind, we prey on the weak with large type and special reports. The Infobahn has become the Nymphobahn! That's our other favorite group of compound words, anything ending with "bahn." Time magazine's July 3 cover features a child's face with a startled look on it, illuminated by a the glow of a computer screen. The headline reads, "Cyberporn. Exclusive: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids - and free speech?" As someone who concerns himself with what goes on covers, I can tell you what reaction the Time editors hoped to illicit from people in the checkout line: "I don't want my child to have that look on his face, and with wild porn being so pervasive online, I'd better worry about it (and buy this magazine)." The Newsweek in the racks during the same time period goes with a similar approach. They got an interview with Timothy McVeigh ("the face of terror!"), so they put him on the cover. But these words run above the masthead: "Sex Online: What Parents Should Know." The story's spread features a boy who is maybe three years older than Time's model, and he wears an expression that is more "oh yes" than "oh golly." Superimposed over his face are names of a few Usenet newsgroups: alt.sex.fetish.orientals, alt.sex.masturbation, alt.sex.spanking, et cetera. A sidebar headline reads, "At Your Fingertips: With just a computer and a modem, techno-savvy kids have access to a plethora of cybersleaze." Here's what the Newsweek editors hoped people would think: "I don't want my child to have that look on his face, and I don't want his fingertips touching the plethora of cybersleaze, so I'd better worry about it (and buy this magazine)." Make no mistake, there is some nasty stuff on the Internet. Oh, what these eyes have seen and read in the interest of good journalism. There's pedophilia, hebephilia, coprophilia, necrophilia, plus attractions lexicographers haven't even invented a philia for. And there's enough of it out there fill gigabytes of storage space. A recent study by a fellow connected with Carnegie Mellon University showed that on the newsgroups where digitized pictures are stored, 83.5 percent are pornographic. But the same study pointed out that those images represent only about three percent of all the messages on the thousands of Usenet newsgroups. What the study doesn't make clear is that the other 97 percent of the newsgroups have names like alt.arts.ballet, and alt.current-events.somalia, alt.education.home-school.christian, alt.language.urdu.poetry, or even alt.religion.zoroastrianism. And to put everything in even clearer perspective, the Usenet itself represents only 11.5 percent of all Internet traffic. That means nudie pictures represent less than one-half of one percent of all Internet traffic. The bottom line is there may be lots of rot on the Internet, but the Internet is an immense electronic space, farther ranging than James Exon and 85 other senators imagine. The vast majority of it houses information that's either harmless or useful - sometimes, shockingly enough, it's both. If you grew up like I did, watching Saturday morning cartoons, then you also watched Schoolhouse Rock, and that's good, because you remember this: We kicked some British butt at the Boston Tea Party; conjunction junction has a function; when your 10-gallon hat is feeling five gallons flat, you hanker for a hunk of cheese ("Look, a wagon wheel!"); and before a bill becomes a law, it has to pass both houses of Congress and not get vetoed by the president. That's the good part. Senator Exon's Communications Decency Act, which is part of a much larger and harder to understand telecommunications bill, will travel to the House later this month. And because the speaker of the House is a smart man, the amendment will not survive. Newt Gingrich and company will kill it. Which means Exon has done us all a huge favor. By posing such an obvious threat to free speech, he has given us time to lock the gates of Troy and protect our personal freedom. A more clever man might have caught us off guard.