Newhouse News Service

If it moves, regulate it; if it doesn't, subsidize it. That's often the Washington approach to the real world.

A shining new example of regulatory lust is the proposed Communications Decency Act of 1995. This bit of foolishness is a bipartisan effort, marrying the liberal love of constricting commerce with the conservative desire to keep all desires conservative.

It would make it a crime for consenting adults to do their consenting with computers. Under the bill, anyone using a modem who ``makes, transmits, or otherwise makes available any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image or any other communication ... which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent'' does so in peril of wearing nickel bracelets with John Law on the other end.

Now, to some folks, the suggestion of being handcuffed to a policeman constitutes a lascivious suggestion, so this news service has violated the law by transmitting this piece. The folks on the copy desk had better get used to prison blues. The punishment? Two years in jail or $100,000 in fines. Yes: two years up the river for an ``indecent comment.'' One hundred grand for a ``lewd suggestion.'' There goes the entire Fox nightly schedule.

Is there smut on the net? Of course. No matter what medium for communication and expression humankind develops, it usually belly-flops into the gutter within days of invention. I mean, what were the first words spoken on the telephone? ``Watson, come here, I need you.'' That's the 1-900 market in a nutshell.

In order to get the smut, however, you have to find it. You have to go out of your way to be appalled. Anyone with an Internet provider can ferret out the squirmy little places where pasty lads trade nasty pictures. There are all manner of particular kinks; when you come across one, it's like opening a door and finding a bunch of men in diapers and fezzes bowing to a greased hog -- you don't know whether to laugh or be alarmed, but you surely want to shut the door and let them get on with it.

There is, for example, an Internet discussion group devoted entirely to Giantesses, where the participants trade humid reveries of encountering Brobdignagian Barbies who can peel men like a grape. Infantile, but harmless. It's not like these guys get stoked up and then go out and assault the first 50-foot woman they see.

The only way any company can make sure I am not sending my friends a heavy-breathing fantasy concerning me and a 50-foot Donna Shalala is for my Internet provider to open EVERY piece of mail and read it. This isn't acceptable in the paper world, and it had better not be acceptable in the incorporeal world of the 'net, either.

Of course, the Internet providers will simply cease to offer those services that might offend. In the case of the big three -- CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy -- there are two possible outcomes. Either they drop e-mail, leading to a catastrophic hemorrhage of customers, or they make everyone sign loyalty oaths pledging not to be Bad, which the Lewdites will promptly flout.

Ah, but what of the children? How do we save the sweaty-fingered youth from themselves? Simple: Parents should act like parents. The occasional unannounced inspection of the child's computer or Internet account suffices, and complies with the exemption of the 14th Amendment known as the ``As Long As You're Living Under This Roof'' clause.

Anyway, there are laws against giving adult material to children, just like there are laws against using children in adult material, be it distributed electronically or by surface mail. The only difference between e-mail and regular mail is that computers handle e-mail, and computers never decide to come to work one day and shoot all the other computers. Whereas regular mail, if it arrives at all, is likely to come in a bag stamped EVIDENCE.

I am not in favor of warty old mouth-breathers dragging your children through the glass into virtual perversity. I am merely opposed to dynamiting the marketplace of ideas because a couple of booths offer French postcards. Disagree? Fine. Send me some e-mail at Call me names, if you like; it will be a private matter, just between us, with no government proctoring the dance. For now.

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