Internet defenders are mounting the barricades, intent on proving they’re not porn-chasing pedophiles or renegade militia members trading bomb-building secrets.
Stung by lurid magazine articles, reports of child-stalking on the worldwide computer network and government efforts to regulate cyberspace, Internet users are launching a counterattack.
Nationally, they have unleashed a blistering attack on Time magazine for a recent article on cyberporn that critics call sensationalistic and uninformed.
Locally, some Spokane companies are offering free Internet connections to schools and area radio stations to help them understand the Internet and find good information on-line.
A Spokane Internet company urges its customers to get involved in political discussions about efforts to regulate the ‘net.
That company, Internet On-Ramp, has a home page of political information and urges people to send comments about Internet legislation to elected officials.
“I’m pushing two-way communication,” said Internet On-Ramp Marketing Director Sheryl Stover.
“People need to tell elected officials what they think. But I also want to help politicians know what the Internet is. Few of our legislators really have a first-name basis with it,” she said.
The increased activism is being provoked by what editors of the on-line magazine HotWired call the “the Great Internet Sex Panic of 1995.”
Two key events ignited the concern: the media’s “discovery” of right-wing paramilitary groups using the Internet after the Oklahoma City bombing, and the July 3 Time article on cyberporn.
Internet providers, already sensitive about their public image, now find themselves on the defensive.
Parents coming to Internet OnRamp’s downtown office ask Stover if the Internet is as unruly or pornridden as the media say.
“I say straight out, yes there’s pornography on the Internet. But no, it’s not easy to find and is a very small part of what is there.”
The panic was sparked by the media treatment of the Internet after the Oklahoma City bombing, said Mike Godwin, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet research agency.
Instead of careful analysis, many print and TV journalists portrayed the Internet as a den of gun-toting extremists sending coded messages and recruiting followers, he said.
“The Internet-as-threat-to-public-safety specter was primarily generated and disseminated by the press itself,” Godwin said.
In June, the U.S. Senate adopted the Communications Decency Act of 1995. Its easy passage was fueled in part by Internet-phobia and media stories about predators stalking innocent kids with on-line comeons, Godwin said.
That bill, now headed for the House, is the first federal attempt to define as a crime the use of computers to send “indecent speech” or offensive material to others.
Internet proponents say it is unconstitutional and impossible to enforce.
Godwin said reaction to Time’s Internet porn article was faster, hotter and more focused than response to media reports about hategroups or militia activity.
That article, he said, was an easy target because it concluded that porn on the net is “pervasive, surprisingly perverse and there’s no easy way to stamp it out.”
The magazine arranged exclusive access to a research study conducted by a Carnegie Mellon University student. The student, Marty Rimm, surveyed Internet discussion groups and found more than 80 percent of all images placed on those groups are pornographic.
Rimm’s study also suggested purveyors of on-line smut were marketing increasingly nasty and violent images to lure customers.
In reply, Godwin and thousands of other Internet users unleashed harsh attacks against the magazine’s editors and writer. Those discussions have multiplied in several Usenet discussion groups and at a number of World Wide Web sites.
The attacks found major flaws in Rimm’s study. “It was a bad study,” said Vanderbilt University professor Donna Hoffman, who had discussed the study with Rimm in December.
She and others have written detailed attacks on both Rimm’s research and Time’s cover story, noting the use of skimpy, inaccurate statistics “to measure activity that can’t really be measured.”
She and others acknowledge the Internet has pornography. “But it’s not much different than realizing that pornography exists in the mail and on videotapes and even on telephones,” she said.
She said she opposes those who use the Time article to argue that government needs to play cybercop to protect kids from the pedophile menace.
“This is complicated and scary to people who don’t know about the differences between bulletin boards, Usenet, the Internet or the World Wide Web,” she said.
Internet On-Ramp decided one way to bridge the knowledge gap is by offering Internet access to radio stations.
Company spokeswoman Stover said the goal is to make sure people who influence public attitudes about the net get a chance to experience it first-hand.
She made the offer in the past two weeks but no station has accepted yet, she said.
Some critics who say the “porn-phobic” media are at fault also suggest that Internet-backers must do more than dismiss Internet smut as a minor irritant on the road to technological utopia.
Both the media and Internet advocates need to discuss the problem of offensive material and hate speech, said Scott Finer, a communications consultant in Washington, D.C.
“There needs to be more written toward folks who only hear scary things in print and on TV,” said Finer.
“The Internet is far, far, far more than porn. But porn is there, and can be legitimately seen as a problem.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Joining the conversation Internet discussions of media portrayal of pornography can be found at: HotWired’s “JournoPorn” site: http://www.hotwired.com/special/pornscare Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak’s Project 2000 home page: http://www2000.ogsm.vanderbilt.edu/ cyberporn.debate.cgi Those looking for discussions about government efforts to regulate on-line communications can look at Sheryl Stover’s Politics on the Internet site: http://www.ior.com/(tilde)sstover/politics.html