Free-speech battle as Congress declares global war on cyberporn

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The Independent Online

in San Francisco

A recent survey of pictures transmitted over the Internet on the Usenet global bulletin board system showed that 94 per cent were sexual in content. Most of the rest were of cars.

There are technical reasons why non-sexual pictures should be distributed across the Internet in different ways, which do not show up in these statistics compiled by Russell Brand, a computer scientist. But there is no doubt that a lot of people's time in cyberspace, as outside it, is taken up with talking or thinking about sex.

Now these discussions are under threat from Congress. The Communications Decency Bill, which emerged last week from a Senate committee, would provide penalties of up to two years in jail for using a modem to send "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image or other communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent''.

At the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in San Francisco this week, a coalition is mobilising to emasculate the bill. The organisers do not want it completely destroyed, for it would pre-empt more restrictive legislation by individual states. But pressure groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are trying to extend to cyberspace the freedoms granted to the press by the First Amendment to the US constitution. The "Exon Bill", as it is known, is based on the much tighter regulations governing pornographic chat lines on the telephone. It is riding a wave of public concern about the free availability of some very explicit material on Usenet and on numerous commercial bulletin boards which specialise in porn.

The original version of the bill would have made carriers of messages , as well as the sender, liable for their content. This has been modified, in a way which lets off the big commercial services, such as CompuServe, but may do little to help smaller operations, according to speakers at a meeting here.

The difficulties surrounding free speech on the Internet were thrown into high relief last month by the case of James Baker, a student at the University of Michigan who posted a pornographic fantasy involving the rape, torture and murder of a girl with the same name as one of his classmates. She remained unaware of this, but an American reader of the story in Moscow complained to the university authorities, and Mr Baker served 29 days in jail before being released on bail, charged with harassment. If nothing else, the story shows American standards of decency or indecency are being applied all around the global Internet.