By NATHAN COBBBoston Globe
BOSTON -- Late on a January night, Northeastern University sophomore Andrew Purtell sat at one of the school's computers and did what thousands of other college kids are doing these days: He placed a ``home page'' on the World Wide Web, meaning he created a personal ``document'' on a popular and glitzy part of the Internet, the global computer network.
Purtell's page, however, consisted of 24 images that in polite circles would be called sexually explicit. He himself refers to them as ``dirty pictures.'' They were viewable by anyone, anywhere, who had Internet access and knew the page's electronic ``address'' at Northeastern. By Purtell's count, the page logged some 20,000 worldwide viewers within 3 1/2 weeks.
``I guess I did it for recognition,'' the New Hampshire native muses of his mid-winter adventure. ``It appealed to the entertainer in me. I became a showman.'' As more colleges and universities wire their dorm rooms for direct Internet access, questions are arising about whether they should control what their students do on line. Knowing their facilities will increasingly become channels for words and pictures careening through cyberspace, administrators are grappling with a growing array of policy issues ranging from free speech to censorship to discipline.
Much of the focus on Internet access has been on whether students should be allowed to use school facilities to reach areas that offer sexually explicit images and text. But as the Northeastern case suggests, getting the stuff is only part of the issue. If computer networks have turned computers into bookstores, they've also converted them into electronic printing presses -- especially via the World Wide Web, a multimedia network that is accessible, lively and fun. To ``publish'' on the Web -- to create a home page with millions of potential viewers -- has become a hot recreational activity.
``This whole World Wide Web thing has just snuck up on administrators,'' says Gregory Johnson, a senior staff member in the campus computer department at the University of Missouri at Columbia. ``Universities are still trying to work out the issues of publication, but it's still up in the air. Oh my, you're going to hear more about this.''
Johnson already has. Since September, he says, three UM students have created Web pages that have been ``sexually explicit: genitals, intercourse, deviant intercourse, various kinds of mutilation.'' Johnson says he told the trio to stop, they didn't, and he ordered their pages erased by the school. ``I'm kind of the sheriff in this here town,'' he muses.
But is such gunslinging effective on an information roadway so broad it can't even be measured?
``I don't think anyone disputes the right of a university to make rules about how its equipment is used,'' says Michael Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a computer communications civil liberties group. ``The only thing to question is a policy that would require the policing of students on the Net (the Internet), because it's so difficult. Meanwhile, the issues of obscenity are deeply complicated, and dealing with them requires an awful lot of energy.''
The issue comes at a time when a controversial proposal to bar sexually explicit material from information networks recently passed the Senate Commerce Committee. This amended version of the Communications Decency Act of 1995 imposes fines of up to $100,000 and two-year prison terms on anyone who knowingly transmits ``obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent'' material via telecommunications networks. Many computerphiles contend the law would be impossible to enforce, but what if the bill passes? Will colleges be felons if students used university computers to transmit what a prosecutor deems to be cyberporn?
As the fate of Northeastern's Purtell illustrates, the issue is already murky, in large part because no one is sure how existing laws and standards should be applied to cyberspace. Like most universities, Northeastern, which is currently wiring its dorms for direct Internet access, has an ``acceptable use policy'' regarding computing and network ethics. It prohibits ``transmitting or making accessible offensive ... material.''
But what is ``offensive''?
George Harris, Northeastern's vice president for information services, thought he knew. ``People don't do pornographic things here,'' he declared in an interview, adding that Purtell's computing privileges had been revoked. But he corrected himself hours later, pointing out that because Purtell was enrolled in the university's College of Computer Science he was subject to different computing rules, regulations that don't deal with ``offensive'' material.
That left the matter in the hands of Larry Finkelstein, dean of the College of Computer Science. ``We don't want to engage in a kneejerk reaction,'' said Finkelstein, who said he had learned of Purtell's home page after a reporter had inquired about it. ``We're educators, not police. This involves questions of privacy, the First Amendment, and censorship. This is a new medium. At this point, we (the College of Computer Science) have no formal policy which forbids him from doing this.''
No policy, no violation
No disciplinary action was taken against Purtell. Finkelstein said he spoke to the sophomore about his page and pointed out its ``implications.'' Purtell -- who initially downloaded the two-dozen pictures to Northeastern from an Internet ``newsgroup'' and later advertised his electronic address within such a group -- says he then deleted his page.
``If there was a policy that said, `No porn,' I'd have adhered to it,'' Purtell says. ``If I'd been using my own computer and my own Internet access and they tried to stop me, I'd have cried `Freedom of expression!' But I was using their resources. Adhering to their guidelines would have been like obeying the rules of the road.''
How would Purtell have fared elsewhere? The University of Missouri's Johnson says he has amassed a collection of acceptable-use policies from some 90 colleges. ``The variations in rigor amaze me,'' he says. ``There are different kinds of political agendas at different schools. Some schools have politically correct agendas. Others have an aversion to that.''
At MIT, where all undergraduate dorm rooms provide direct Internet access and student home pages abound, computing rules prohibit violating the law and harassing anyone. ``There is no MIT rule that says you will not distribute obscene images,'' says Gregory Jackson, director of academic computing. ``If all it was doing was offending someone, we'd leave it alone unless it rose to the level of breaching our harassment policy or was something illegal. We wouldn't like it, but we'd let it go. In our experience, attempting to build walls between students and things they want to do simply causes students to spend time building ladders and battering rams.''
At Boston College, all undergraduate dorms will be wired for the Internet by fall. But students will not be able to publish home pages beyond the confines of the university. ``The content belongs within the community,'' contends Mary Corcoran, an educational services administrator in the office of information technology. Home pages ``won't be reviewed for content, but if one was brought to our attention -- for obscenity, harassment, or discrimination -- we'd treat it just like a sign hanging from a dormitory window. It would be reported to the dean of Student Development for disciplinary procedures.''
Mixed views on issue
If colleges themselves aren't in agreement about how to handle the issue, neither are students. At Boston University -- where transmitting ``offensive'' material violates the school's Conditions of Use and Policy on Computing Ethics -- student home pages are all but nonexistent. Nevertheless, Web fans such as Maggie Battista and Zach Brand, both seniors, have strong -- and in this case opposing -- viewpoints.
``I don't think universities should get involved in censorship of the Internet yet,'' says Battista. ``They could stifle it. This is all new, and we can learn so much more from it. In the next five years, students are going to go crazy putting up Web pages.''
Says Brand, ``I think students should be held responsible. If the material doesn't meet university standards, assuming the standards are clear, it should be taken down. I don't want to pay tuition to a school that lets offensive materials go out.''
Finkelstein predicts there will be more cases like Purtell's. ``We're just confronting the problem earlier (at the College of Computer Science) because we're in the forefront of the technology,'' he says. ``But this is a larger social issue. And it's going to explode.''
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