By Robin Stacy, The Macon Telegraph, Georgia Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 3--STOPPING SMUT IN CYBERSPACE Psst! C'mere! You ever seen anything like this? Check out those pixels! Hey, hey, hey! Whenever some new technology develops, it seems, people use it for sexual purposes. One of the oldest motion pictures still in existence is of a naked woman. I don't know this for a fact, but I'd guess that Alexander Graham Bell was still kicking when the first instance of ``I bet you can't guess what I've got on under this hoop skirt,'' was uttered over the phone lines.

``Hello, Central. Guess what I've got in my hand.'' As a species, we're pretty obsessed with sex. For that matter, I guess all species are obsessed with sex - otherwise, they'd cease to be. It's, um, a part of nature, I suppose.

It's a part of human nature - at least since Queen Victoria, the woman who also brought us hemophilia - that as soon as someone does seem to be obsessed with sex, someone else becomes obsessed with stopping them.

``Someone's enjoying themselves, better put a stop to that,'' they seem to say.

Since the days of 300 baud modems, I suppose, people have used the on-line worldfor sexual communication. I know that one of the first mentions I ever saw of a computer bulletin board was in an advertisement for Penthouse's. The technology was so new at the time, in fact, that Penthouse even supplied the modem to get you on-line (a U.S. Robotics Sportster, at about three times its normal retail price, in fact).

And when I started my own computer bulletin board (not to emulate Penthouse, thank you very much), one of my first callers - the seventh, in fact; I looked it up - was a woman whose goal in calling was to engage me in dirty chat.

Among the first files uploaded to my board were, well, obscene graphics files. Unclad women, unclad men, unclad women and men together, unclad animals - you can probably guess, though you may not care to.

I'm no prude, but I've had a file uploaded to my board that disgusted even me, something that, before I saw this particular graphic image, I'd have guessed wasn't possible. It was, um, scatological in nature, I suppose you'd say; I still shudder recalling it.

I recognized early on that I'd need to screen the files callers uploaded to the board before they could be made available for other callers to download. I think I thought at first that I needed the protection to prevent illegally copied commercial software from being distributed, but, in reality, there are probably 10 graphics files uploaded - ranging from simple nudity to the aforementioned, um, bizarre sexual act - for every piece of pirated software.

Anyhow, my point is that there is definitely sex on-line - people writing about it, taking pictures of it, soliciting it. People are sexual animals, and they're the ones using computers for communication. Some, I can attest, are more animal-like than others.

That's why, of course, there are laws against obscenity - if there aren't those laws, some darned fool is going to spend his creativity being obscene. And, frankly, I don't have any problem with that.

What I do have a problem with, however, is trying to prevent that obscenity by censoring the freedom of speech in cyberspace - the so-called Communications Decency Act which was approved by a Senate committee last week.

Its author is Sen. James Exon of Nebraska, a no-doubt well-intentioned man who imagines that his bill would simply protect children. Unfortunately, the way he's trying to do it would, to be trite, throw the baby out with the bath water.

What the bill would do, and, again, this sounds pretty noble, is enact penalties for distributing on-line ``obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent'' images or speech. Pretty stiff penalties, at that - up to a $100,000 fine and two years in prison.

The problem with all that is the precise language of the bill. I don't think there would be too much disagreement that it should be criminal to distribute obscenity on-line. In fact, the federal government and each of the states already have laws making that a criminal offense.

The problem comes with the ``filthy or indecent'' part. That would extend to cyberspace the same regulations that now apply to broadcast television and radio.

Remember George Carlin's ``seven dirty words'' the FCC wouldn't let you say on the radio? They'd be banned.

What's wrong with that? you might ask. I think you have to consider the difference between broadcasting and on-line communications. When something is broadcast, it goes out unsolicited via the public airways - if I've got my radio or television on, I hear or see the ``indecency'' whether I care to or not.

Computer communications, however, are not broadcast - they are, instead, sort of ``narrow-cast.'' If you send me a message, you're now free to use any language in it that you see fit. I, in turn, have the right to read it and respond in kind or, if your language offends me, to let you know about it and break off our correspondence if I'm sufficiently outraged.

If Exon's bill were to become law, however, instead of telling you that you had offended me, I'd have you arrested, fined a hundred grand and thrown in the pokey for two years.

While it's certainly true that ``that would learn you, durn you,'' as the great Southern expression goes, let me suggest that it's a bit extreme for offending someone.

Carlin's seven dirty words now are routinely used in everyday life, and they certainly exist in on-line messages. They even exist rather frequently, in point of fact.

Yet, if they offend the recipient, all the recipient has to do is what I did with my early caller who wanted to talk dirty - hang up.

If they're made criminal, then not only will the seven dirty words be prevented, but I think there's going to be an overall chilling effect on speech in general on-line.

People will be censoring themselves, and existing in a general paranoia about the language police waiting to pounce on their every utterance. Exon would eliminate indecency, but replace it with fear.

Obscenity on-line is no better, certainly, than obscenity anywhere else in the world, but it's no worse, either. There are already laws against it, and they already apply to the on-line world.

Such things as soliciting children for sexual purposes, likewise, are certainly no better on-line, but, again, they're already illegal under current law.

Cyberspace is an emerging frontier. If allowed the same freedoms that the rest of society enjoys, it will grow. Exon's bill, however, would apply a needless higher standard on speech in cyberspace, and the only outcome of that will be to curb its growth.

This is a bad bill. Call or write your lawmakers - on-line, if you like, while you still can - and express your opposition. Exon is well-intentioned, but he's misguided.

Our country was founded on the basis of freedom. Let's keep cyberspace free, too.

Robin Stacy is special projects editor of The Macon Telegraph. END!L3?MA-STACY-COL

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