Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Cyberporn vs. Censorship

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Cyberporn vs. Censorship

Article excerpt

The booming world of on-line gay erotica is being buffeted by regulations that may never go into effect

So far what Nathan Johansen does on the Internet is perfectly legal--as far as he can tell. But Johansen, who operates a gay erotic Web site called the Gay Cafe, isn't taking any chances, Like others in the thriving business of on-line gay pornography, he knows his site is among those that proponents of the Communications Decency Act would love to shut down.

The CDA is a wide-ranging piece of legislation that would also, opponents say, threaten access to safer-sex information and other gay-sensitive material on-line. "But pornography is what they're trying to get at," says Johansen. "The funny thing about that is, with any kind of new communications medium, the first thing to show up is adult entertainment. That's what everyone has an interest in, and that's what makes money. It's also the first thing that everyone attacks."

Implementation of the CDA has so far been obstructed by a legal challenge, and the case is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Experts believe the court will uphold an earlier judicial ruling that found the CDA unconstitutional, but if the decision goes the other way, the Justice Department could prosecute violations of the CDA that occurred any time after President Clinton signed the bill into law early last year. If found guilty, Web site operators such as Johansen could be subject to prison terms of up to two years and fines of up to $250,000.

Meanwhile, the CDA has already made an impact on the gay cyberporn industry. Before the bill was introduced, the Web site Badpuppy was accessed about 300,000 times a day, says operator Bill Pinyon. After the bill was signed by Clinton, the number of people visiting the site dropped by 75% and business remained at a low ebb for three months. Pinyon thinks customers were scared off or assumed Badpuppy wouldn't be able to offer any more explicit photos.

Eventually business bounced back, and Pinyon projects that Badpuppy will earn $3 million this year against $1.5 million in operating costs. Indeed, Badpuppy proves how lucrative gay erotic Web sites can be. Begun as a hobby from Pinyon's home, the site now employs 22 people in a two-story office building. "We are keeping a minimum of 400 people on-line, 24 hours a day," Pinyon says. "And we're peaking at about 750 people on-line," the maximum the site's capacity allows.

Ironically, the CDA could be encouraging people to get into the cyberporn business. A key point in the law is that "indecent" material should be restricted to adults only. The legal burden is on the operators of Web sites to restrict access by "requiring use of a verified credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number." In complying with the law, some sites have created "authentication walls" that require only a driver's license. But most have quickly made the leap to credit cards--and profitability.

That's what happened to Kevin Bennett, who ran a Web site from his home in Glens Falls, N.Y., that was free to all visitors before Congress passed the CDA. The site, which explained why Bennett came out as a gay man at age 21, featured photos Of naked men. Because of the CDA's age-authentication requirement, Bennett started charging a fee. At first he asked for $2. But so many people wanted access to his site, called Mount Equinox, that his Internet server couldn't handle the demand. So he switched to a higher-cost server and now charges $19 for six months' access. …

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