Batten down the hatches: Congress has discovered that there is smut available on the Internet.
As we speak, legislation is working its way through those hallowed halls to protect us all from ourselves.
The Communications Decency Act of 1995 has been passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and folded into a larger telecommunications act. This legislation would be very hazardous to the health of the Internet and to civil liberties in general.
Ill-conceived by Democratic Sen. Jim Exon of Nebraska, this bill would try to tame the Internet, local computer bulletin board systems and commercial on-line services, and make them suitable for families and children.
Mr. Exon is well-intentioned, but obviously ignorant of on-line culture. What he proposes is simply unworkable. Not only that, it's unconstitutional, unnecessary and un-American.
Yes, there is smut on the Internet in many places. Pornographers have found ways to use every new technology, from the printing press to the VCR, and the Internet is no different.
Much of what's available on the Internet is not any worse than what you'll find in Playboy or Penthouse magazines, both of which, incidentally, have World Wide Web sites.
Some of the material is much more scandalous. Graphic pictures, converted into binary files that you have to download and reconvert into graphic files, can be found in many of the Usenet newsgroups.
Most are in the "alt.binaries.pictures.erotica" hierarchy. If you look through these, you can find everything from bestiality to homoerotic photos to bondage.
I found some of it quite shocking, and I consider myself pretty liberal-minded on these sorts of things. I would not want a child to have free access to any of this stuff.
There are also newsgroups devoted to erotic stories. This is where Jake Baker, a student in California, got in trouble by posting a rape/torture story about a girl in one of his classes.
On the World Wide Web, you can find sites devoted to dirty
pictures, dirty stories and live nude videoconferencing (as Dave Barry says, I'm not making this up).
If you have access to Internet Relay Chat (IRC), an Internet service that allows thousands of people from across the globe to "chat" via their keyboards, you will find virtual rooms devoted to gay sex, bestiality discussions, "hot chat" (which is where two people try to stimulate each other sexually from hundreds of miles apart through a keyboard) and lots of other prurient interests.
If it sounds like the Internet is crawling with sex, you're getting an accurate, if incomplete, picture. It would be like judging television solely from late-night advertisements for 900 numbers, like judging New York City based only on a visit to Times Square.
Take IRC. While many of the virtual rooms there are devoted to sex, many are devoted to international issues, politics, self-help and countless other topics.
During the abortive coup attempt in Russia, IRC was an invaluable source of information, both to the outside world and those resisting the coup.
Sex is just one part of the Internet, just as it is one part of the real world. No one would ever try to remove all sexual material from the real world.
Can you imagine trying to root out every strip joint, adult bookstore, peep show, X-rated movie house and video store from a city about three times the size of New York City?
But Mr. Exon's bill doesn't just cover obscenity, it also applies to any "lewd, lascivious or indecent" communication on the Internet. Applied to the real world, that would be analogous to closing down every video store and movie theater because they show movies rated PG-13.
Then you've got to police the bookstores and the libraries to make sure no material inappropriate for a 12-year-old can be found there.
Oh, and private mail and phone conversations are also covered, even between consenting adults.
Those pushing this bill don't seem to understand that you have to look for this material to find it. If you don't want to see a picture of a woman performing unnatural acts with a dog, stay out of the alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.bestiality newsgroup.
If you don't want your children viewing this kind of material, make sure you know what they're doing on their computers.
You wouldn't let your kids run around loose in New York City. Don't let them visit the Internet without adult companionship.
Dan Radmacher is editorial page editor of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. His article was distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.