Zoning Laws in Cyberspace
There are, as yet, no zoning laws in cyberspace. You can hang a garish neon sign and set up shop practically anywhere you like on the information frontier, and there isn't much anyone can do about it. You don't even have to be a virtual Donald Trump. Land here is cheap. But as the virtual community inevitably becomes yet another strip mall, there's a growing need for the sorts of laws that apply in "the received world" (as some techno-junkies call it). Notions of property, decency, even libel are as important in cyberspace as they are in real life. But applying the laws already on the books can be tough. The technology adds new wrinkles to old concepts, making enforcement and prosecution difficult. Even more troubling, Congress and the courts have seemed reluctant to extend to cyberzens the same basic protections that citizens enjoy. So we're at an awkward point in the digital age: many of the old laws don't apply, and many of the new ones are still being written. In that environment, things can get ugly. Or weird. The microchip meat market Jenifer Amon's home page on the World-Wide Web is as innocent as can be. There are some pictures of a recent trip she took to Montana, a description of her work as a computer programmer for Oberlin College, and recipes. But Amon's page was recently selected for a dubious honor: she's now officially a "Babe of the Web." Sex-starved computer geeks around the world are finding their way to her doorstep by stopping first at an Internet site based in Texas that helpfully categorizes the "Babes of the Web" on a four-point scale, four points meaning "Babe-O-Rama," one point "Dog-O-Matic." Amon rates a four, but she's not impressed. "Nobody asked me if I wanted to be part of the Babes of the Web," she says. Still, there isn't a thing she can do about it, and she knows it. The Babes page, which debuted last month to a minor scandal on the Net, is the brainchild of Robert Toups, a 27-year-old computer programmer from Beaumont, Texas. He crafted his virtual meat market carefully. Although the Babes of the Web is clearly in bad taste, it's entirely legal. If Amon had bought an ad in House and Garden, she could justifiably expect it would not be reprinted without her consent in Hustler. But cyberspace makes no such promises. When you publish a home page on the Web, you add your biography to the thousands of others linked on computers all over the world. All of those documents are written in a computer language that allows users to leapfrog from one site to another at the click of a mouse button. To publish a home page is to put your address on the world-wide mailing list. By definition, it's an invitation for people to visit and find out more about you. The Internet gives people the power to transform themselves into public figures. But it also makes people vulnerable to the pitfalls of celebrity. Though you hope and expect you'll be treated with respect, it's altogether possible that your visitors will have other things on their minds. You may own the content of the page, but you have no control over the context in which it's presented. "If someone wants to put 'Stupid Jerk' on their Web page and provide a link to mine, I can't do anything about it," explains Toups. One of Toups's "Babes" did retaliate, creating her own page of Internet "Hunks." To date, no one has made a collection of "Schmucks of the Web." The electronic adult bookstore The legal issues are stickier, and the stakes higher, when it comes to the actual content of messages posted to the Internet. The easy availability of pornography on-line is a case in point. Congress is trying to crack down on cyber-porn in part by subjecting the Internet to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, but the technology is complicating matters. Part of the problem is that interactive media simply don't fit the old broadcast standard of a lone station sending out a signal to countless receivers. On the Internet, everyone broadcasts at once. Messages flow back and forth across computer networks, into thousands of newsgroups and countless e-mail accounts. Inevitably, some of those messages include pornography that's either being downloaded by minors or that depicts minors engaged in sexual acts. Who bears ultimate responsibility for those images? Certainly, in the case of child pornography, the creator should be liable. The technology both helps and hinders attempts to catch creators of kiddie porn. The Internet allows the pornographer to disguise his true identity behind an anonymous address or a stolen computer account, but it also gives law enforcers greater power to locate and prosecute criminals. But what about the Internet service provider, without whose tacit consent individuals couldn't access the dirty pictures? The US Senate is now considering a bill that would potentially subject on-line providers to prosecution for obscene materials available on their services. (Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a self-styled technophile, has enraged libertarian Republicans by supporting such measures.) The Communications Decency Act, scheduled for a vote in the Senate this month, makes a distinction between services that try to run a clean house and those that exercise no editorial control whatsoever. The logic goes this way: some on-line services act like television stations, which assume editorial responsibility for the material they broadcast and are held accountable to the FCC for any indecent materials that make it past the gatekeepers. Others act more like newsstands, where stored materials are freely available but aren't subject to any editorial scrutiny. Under the Senate's proposed decency bill, on-line services that don't try to screen out indecent communications would be safe, but those that make a good-faith effort would face possible criminal liability. Any indecent or threatening item that passed the censor would likely land the service in court. To the concern of the on-line community, that's already happened, in a New York State Supreme Court case decided last month. Prodigy, one of the big three US service providers, was sued for libel by Stratton Oakmont Inc. after a Prodigy user posted a message accusing the investment firm of criminal conduct Judge Stuart Ain noted in his opinion that on-line services should "generally be regarded in the same context as bookstores, libraries, and network affiliates," which aren't held accountable for the materials they distribute. Prodigy is different, Ain argued, because it has prided itself on being a family service, which routinely censors inappropriate messages. "Prodigy's conscious choice, to gain the benefits of editorial control, has opened it up to a greater liability than CompuServe and other computer networks that make no such choice," Ain wrote. "They were hoisted on their own PR," quips Lance Rose, author of NetLaw (McGraw-Hill, 1995). The virtual cyber-vigilante Because the laws of cyberspace are unclear, entities with deep pockets and good lawyers can potentially silence the small fry by intimidation. A case in point is a trial now under way in California, where the Church of Scientology is suing a disgruntled former minister and his Internet access providers. Dennis Ehrlich upset the church when he posted messages to the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology revealing secret ceremonies and bizarre beliefs known only to higher level "Thetans" in the church. Scientology officials freaked, claiming the postings divulged copyrighted materials and trade secrets. The case became something of a cause celebre in cyberspace, especially since it led to a stealth campaign of vigilante justice. Someone sympathetic to the Scientologists used a search-and-delete computer function to ferret out and suppress messages critical of the church. That vigilante effort did little more than stir up a hornets' nest, so the church is pursuing a more conventional (and far more threatening) form of redress: a lawsuit in federal court. With the powers of subpoena and the help of law enforcement, the church has been sending a message to its critics that they should think twice about opening their mouths, even if they are doing so anonymously. Until our laws adequately reflect the technical nuances of cyberspace, civil libertarians worry that free speech on-line will increasingly be threatened in the legislatures and the courts. That fear prompted Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe to propose a "cyberspace corollary" to the Bill of Rights, a 27th Amendment that would explicitly extend First Amendment protections to emerging forms of electronic communication. "If my own life as a lawyer and legal scholar could leave just one legacy, I'd like it to be the recognition that the Constitution as a whole 'protects people, not places'," said Tribe. "The Constitution as a whole must be read through a technologically transparent lens."