On-Line Pornography: Control May Prove as Tricky as Definition

By Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. 1995, Chicago Tribune | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 23, 1995 | Go to article overview
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On-Line Pornography: Control May Prove as Tricky as Definition

Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. 1995, Chicago Tribune, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

EACH DAY, PATRONS of the Northbrook Public Library in Illinois vie for time on computers linking them to the Internet and its universe of information.

But the popular service could be discontinued, according to library officials, if Congress passes a proposal for a telecommunications reform bill that would establish criminal penalties for the dissemination of sexually explicit materials over computer networks.

Chadwick Raymond, executive director of the library, said the services could be curtailed to protect employees from criminal sanctions if patrons were to download images of old master paintings depicting nudity, or contemporary fiction quoting vulgar language.

While there was dispute Thursday over the status of some elements of the measure before Congress, provisions offered by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., would hold Internet service providers criminally liable for materials downloaded through their services and considered "indecent" by local community standards.

Library and school officials say that their institutions would be included in the sanctions because they, too, provide Internet access.

The law also would impose sanctions against other types of communications deemed obscene, lewd, lascivious, abusive, filthy with the intent to annoy, threatening or harassing to another person.

"The problem for us is that our employees could face being jailed because they assisted" someone in accessing information that someone elsewhere decided was indecent, Raymond said.

At issue is exactly what constitutes indecency. Critics say there is no generally agreed upon definition of indecency and that the community standards approach is argumentative.

The Internet, by design, has no physical borders, and what may be offensive in one community may not raise an eyebrow in another.

The Supreme Court has not been able to define indecency, nor have members of Congress - as the debate over how to describe what should be banned enters its eighth month.

Since spring, members of Congress have debated whether to proscribe "indecent" materials as proposed by Hyde and Exon or materials that are "harmful to minors," a less restrictive standard favored by other lawmakers.

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On-Line Pornography: Control May Prove as Tricky as Definition


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