[First published in The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 1995,
under the headline “This Is Sex?”
A version of this essay appears in What Just Happened.]
AT FIRST GLANCE, THERE’S a lot of sex on the Internet. Or, not at first glance—nobody can find anything on the Internet at first glance. But if you have time on your hands, if you’re comfortable with computing, and if you have an unflagging curiosity about sex—in other words, if you’re a teen-ager—you may think you’ve suddenly landed in pornography heaven. Nude pictures! Foul language! Weird bathroom humor! No wonder the Christian Coalition thinks the Internet is turning into a red-light district. There’s even a “Red Light District” World Wide Web page.
The battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply”
So we explore. Some sites make you promise to be a grown-up. (O.K.: you promise.) You try “Girls,” a link leading to a computer at the University of Bordeaux, France. The message flashes back: Document Contains No Data. “Girls” at Funet, Finland, seems to offer lots of pictures (Dolly Parton! Ivana Trump!)—Connect Timed Out. “Girls,” courtesy of Liberac University of Technology, Czech Republic, does finally, with painful slowness, deliver itself of a 112,696-byte image of Madchen Amick. You could watch it spread across your screen, pixel by tantalizing pixel, but instead you go have lunch during the download, and when you return, there she is—in black-and-white and wearing clothes.
These pictures, by the way, are obviously scanned from magazines. And magazines are the ideal medium for them. Clearly the battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply.”
With old Internet technology, retrieving and viewing any graphic image on a PC at home could be laborious. New Internet technology, like browsers for the Web, makes all this easier, though it still takes minutes for the typical picture to squeeze its way through your modem. Meanwhile, though, ease of use has killed off the typical purveyor of dirty pictures, capable of serving hundreds of users a day but uninterested in handling hundreds of thousands. The Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers has turned off its “Femmes femmes femmes je vous aime” Web page. The good news for erotica fans is that users are redirected to a new site where “You can find naked women, including topless and total nudity”; the bad news is that this new site is the Louvre.
The Internet does offer access to hundreds of sex “newsgroups,” forums for discussion encompassing an amazing spectrum of interests. They’re easy to find—in the newsgroup hierarchy “alt.sex” (“alt” for alternative) comes right after “alt.sewing.” And yes, alt.sex is busier than alt.sewing. But quite a few of them turn out to be sham and self-parody. Look at alt.sex.fish—practically nothing. Alt.sex.bestiality—aha! just what Jesse Helms fears most—gives way to alt.sex.bestiality.hamster.duct-tape, and fascinating as this sounds, when you call it up you find it’s empty, presumably the vestige of a short-lived joke. Alt.sex.bondage.particle-physics is followed by alt.sex.sheep.baaa.baaa.baaa.moo—help!
Still, if you look hard enough, there is grotesque stuff available. If pornography doesn’t bother you, your stomach may be curdled by the vulgar commentary and clinical how-to’s in the militia and gun newsgroups. Your local newsstand is a far more user-friendly source of obscenity than the on-line world, but it’s also true that, if you work at it, you can find plenty on line that will disgust you, and possibly even disgust your children.
This is the justification for an effort in Congress to give the Federal Government tools to control the content available on the Internet. The Communications Decency Act, making its way through Congress, aims to transform the obscene-phone-call laws into a vehicle for prosecuting any Internet user, bulletin-board operator, or on-line service that knowingly makes obscene material available.
As originally written, the bill would not only have made it a crime to write lewd E-mail to your lover; it would also have made it a crime for your Internet provider to transmit it. After a round of lobbying from the large on-line services, the bill’s authors have added “defenses” that could exempt mere unwitting carriers of data, and they say it is children, not consenting adults, they aim to protect. Nevertheless, the legislation is a historically far-reaching attempt at censorship on a national scale.
The Senate authors of this language do not use E-mail themselves, or browse the Web, or chat in newsgroups, and their legislation reflects a mental picture of how the on-line world works that does not match the reality. The existing models for Federal regulation of otherwise protected speech—for example, censorship of broadcast television and prohibition of harassing telephone calls—come from a world that is already vanishing over the horizon. There aren’t three big television networks now, serving a unified mass market; there are thousands of television broadcasters serving ever-narrower special interests. And on the Internet, the number of broadcasters is rapidly approaching the number of users: uncountable.
With Internet use spreading globally, most live sources of erotic images already seem to be overseas. The sad reality for Federal authorities is that they cannot cut those off without forcing the middlemen—on-line services in the United States—to do the work of censorship, and that work is a practical impossibility. Any teen-ager with an account on Prodigy can use its new Web browser to search for the word “pornography” and click his way to “Femmes femmes femmes” (oh, well, better luck next time). Policing discussion groups presents the would-be censor with an even more hopeless set of choices. A typical Internet provider carries more than 10,000 groups. As many as 100 million new words flow through them every day. The actual technology of these discussion groups is hard to fathom at first. They are utterly decentralized. Every new message begins on one person’s computer and propagates outward in waves, like a chain letter that could eventually reach every mailbox in the world. Legislators would like to cut off a group like alt.sex.bondage.particle-physics at the source, or at its home—but it has no source and no home, or rather, it has as many homes as there are computers carrying newsgroups.
This is the town-square speech the First Amendment was for: often rancorous, sometimes harsh and occasionally obscene. Voices do carry farther now. The world has never been this global and this intimate at once. Even seasoned Internet users sometimes forget that, lurking just behind the dozen visible participants in an out-of-the-way newsgroup, tens of millions of potential readers can examine every word they post.
If a handful of people wish to share their private experiences with like-minded people in alt.sex.fetish.hair, they can do so, efficiently—the most fervent wishes of Congress notwithstanding — and for better or worse, they’ll have to learn that children can listen in. Meanwhile, if gun-wielding extremists wish to discuss the vulnerable points in the anatomy of F.B.I. agents, they too can do so. At least the rest of us can listen in on them, too. Perhaps there is a grain of consolation there—instead of censorship, exposure to the light. Anyway, the only real alternative now would be to unwire the Information Superhighway altogether.