PRINT March 1996


Naughty Bytes

IN FEBRUARY 1995, Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska)—whose name shares the ominous “xon” suffix with such other authors of unmitigated disasters as Richard Nixon and the Exxon Valdez—introduced the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as a stealthy remora on the back of a regulation-munching shark, the Telecommunications Reform Bill. The CDA was then defanged and refanged in a series of cheap backroom operations that would affront the dignity of the shoddiest Tijuana dentist. Nevertheless, a version of the law, censoring incisors intact, was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton this February 8.

Although the crucial issue of whether the Federal Communications Commission will control cyberspace remains to be settled, the final version of the CDA allows for Iron Curtain–style censorship of the Internet. The bill creates criminal penalties—a two-year prison term and a $250,000 fine—for making available on the Net any material, including private E-mail, that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent.” The definition of obscenity has been hashed out in the courts, but remains troublesome; the vague and unconstitutional “indecency” standard has little precedent. And besides criminalizing “indecent” individuals, the CDA holds online networks liable for any naughty bits on their systems. Exon reasons that if a service provides any kind of content—whether chicken recipes or chicken porn—it becomes a publisher or broadcaster, and is responsible for what floats over its transom.

Sensing the Exon juggernaut threatening their harbors, and hoping to change its course, commercial online services have engaged in preposterous acts of self-censorship, misguided policing raids that are revealing auguries of the shape of future government intervention. For a worst-case scenario of the CDA’s potential effects, take a risible recent resolution at America Online, which decided that certain titles catalogued in a paid ad in Downtown AOL, the network’s virtual shopping mall, were inappropriate for the service. A Downtown AOL representative wrote to the distributor, ATKOL Gay Videos, asking for their voluntary removal.

AOL’s raunch list was a case study in the arbitrariness of censorship. Among its titles were All the Right Stuff, Black Magic, The Rites of Spring, Sunday Brunch, and The Boy Next Door. Uncensored, meanwhile, and presumably consistent with the wholesome family image the network likes to project, were Lockerroom Fever, Bareback, Bung Hole Buddies, Dirty Picture Show, Men with Tools, and Nights in Black Leather. Making no attempt to conceal its racism (as well as its peculiar fear of juvenile athletes), AOL automatically cut any titles containing the words “black,” “Rican,” “hard,” “pleasure,” “boys,” “jock,” “sex,” “stud,” “straight,” and “young.” Porn producers take note: the sleaziest gay video of all time, the stud flick to violate community standards across the Milky Way, would apparently be entitled Hard Young Black Jock Stud Boys—Straight Rican Sex Pleasure!

When ATKOL asked what standards had been applied in censoring the titles, an AOL representative replied, “Downtown AOL does not have any written standards for its advertisements. As the manager of the area, I determine whether an advertisement has the look and feel that best fits our environment.” Clearly this manager was unaware of the delicious slant the promise of “bareback bunghole buddies in black leather” gives the “the look and feel” of AOL’s “environment.” In a related fiasco, AOL tried to ban the word “breast” from chat-room user profiles, until breast-cancer victims complained. Then, for a week that seemed an eternity, chicken-loving chefs were similarly left at a loss. The embattled network reversed the policy the next week, calling it a “mistake.”

Not surprisingly, while breasts were anathema throughout AOL, Downtown AOL ran an ad for Affinity Teleproductions, Inc., which read, “Now you can enjoy exotic Anna Nicole Smith . . . in her exclusive photo portfolio—It’s all Anna Nicole Smith wet and wild, drenched in sun and powder sugar sand.” If the manager of Downtown AOL, a member of Congress’ beloved private sector, couldn’t tell the difference between Ms. Smith’s surgically augmented size 40 DDs and a ready-to-roast pair of chicken breasts drenched in Shake ’n’ Bake, would you trust the FCC to make the same distinction?

Soon after this debacle, the online provider CompuServe banned more than two hundred sexually explicit Usenet newsgroups after the German government maintained that their content was illegal in Germany, where the network has customers. CompuServe, in what may have also been part of a more-encompassing move to bring itself in line with the CDA, failed to note in its press statements that child porn was the substantive basis of the German prohibition (print and video pornography featuring adults is legal and easily available in Germany) as the company rushed to block a range of perfectly legal contents. (CompuServe also claimed that the technology does not exist to filter access to the network by geographical location—a defense disputed by a Microsoft Network manager in the New York Times. Home-based filtering software also already exists, and more is on the way.) So CompuServe users worldwide were denied access to the newsgroups, which had included discussions of AIDS and safe sex. Potentially lifesaving forums became inaccessible in order to deny adults—consenting adults—their fix of

While the ostensible aim of Net censorship is to protect children from pornography and pedophilia, Congress should perhaps look instead at the furtive frisson certain adults derive from “innocent” entertainment for kids, if the sticky posts to and are any indication. But the censors seem incapable of detecting the pedophilic subtexts coursing through mainstream children’s entertainment, from Mr. Rogers (who urges his unsuspecting cherubs to slip into something more comfortable at the beginning of every program) and the freakishly androgynous Barney (described in relatively unhinged online precincts as a “butt-wagging psychotic”) to Disney (Jacko’s Captain EO “ride”) and Steven Spielberg (whose reading of Peter Pan in Hook has been deconstructed to its chicken-porn roots by essayist Adam Parfrey).1 Can Congress truly justify Internet restrictions that criminalize elements of the Eng.-lit. canon, artworks of the masters, and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalism while allowing a rump-shaking purple dinosaur with a phallic head and a probing prehensile tail to mesmerize our children?

It should be no surprise that this bid for legislated morality has come nestled inside an unwieldy Trojan horse, under the sign of corporate deregulation and “small government.” Conservatives have invaded the bedroom while leaving the boardroom alone for years. The CDA, however, wraps the paradox of the “Republican Revolution” in a particularly neat package. Even self-proclaimed cybergeek Newt Gingrich, who had criticized the Exon bill, checked his volatile mouth at the door when the ballots were counted. What career-conscious Congressman would vote in favor of the likes of during an election year?

And so the First Amendment is eroded by opportunists too dim to recognize that trying to regulate the appetite for pornography is like trying to regulate air. Even their own hallowed halls are unsafe from the scourge of smut. As intrepid cyberjournalist Brock Meeks has noted on his Chandleresque rounds through the Capitol’s seamy underbelly (recorded in his “CyberWire Dispatch” on the Internet), the Congressional men’s room—the porcelain seat of government—is rife with gay graffiti. Any visiting child, perhaps the son of a Congressman no less, would inevitably be exposed to images of impossibly swollen phalli and descriptions of “unnatural acts.” Reasoning that logging onto the Internet is now as necessary (and potentially as dangerous) as going to the bathroom, hypocritical Congressmen propose to put a lid on this virtual sump. They should be worrying about the commies still in their toilets.

Andrew Hultkrans is a frequent contributor to Artforum.


1. Adam Parfrey, “Pederastic Park?,” Answer Me! no. 3, 1993, pp. 114–17.