A new study of computer networks, which concludes that the exchange of sex-related images is "one of the largest (if not the largest) recreational applications of users" of those systems, is being challenged as unscientific and sensationalistic by opponents of government regulation of computer networks.
The study, conducted a year ago by a student at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and published last week in the Georgetown Law Journal, has intensified the debate over indecent material on the Internet, galvanizing both those who favor tighter government controls on the information networks and those who fear the erosion of First Amendment rights in cyberspace.
Titled "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway," the study also found that computer networks represent an efficient, global distribution mechanism for extreme pornographic images that are not commonly available in adult bookstores.
Among the study's more intriguing conclusions was that most pornographic images found on public computer networks -- including the Internet, Usenet and the World Wide Web -- originate from adult bulletin boards. The operators of those bulletin boards place salacious images on the Internet, along with their telephone numbers, as a way to attract customers to their private systems, the study suggested.
The study claimed, for example, that "83.5 percent of all images posted on the Usenet are pornographic." Usenet, a global computer network composed of nearly 15,000 discussion groups, is commonly reached through the Internet and consumer on-line information services.
The study's conclusions, including the assertion that the most popular pornographic images were of pedophilia, bestiality and other deviant sexual behavior, were prominently cited in the cover article of last week's Time magazine.
The findings were quickly embraced by anti-pornography activists, including Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition and several members of Congress. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, cited the study in support of his legislation to make it a federal crime to knowingly make pornography available to children over computer networks.
While defenders of the study call it a landmark investigation of pornography on the computer networks, several professors and lawyers with backgrounds in statistics and market research -- all advocates for the free use of electronic highways -- have fiercely attacked the study's methodologies and motives.
"It's a very bad piece of misleading research, and the way it was released shows a clear pattern of media manipulation," said Donna L. Hoffman, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University. Ms. Hoffman noted that the study was not submitted for normal peer review before publication and said it would not have been taken seriously had it not been featured so prominently as the centerpiece of Time's article on "cyberporn."
"This would never make it through a traditional peer review in even a third-line social science review," said Jim Thomas, a professor of sociology and criminal justice who teaches methodology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "I've read it a couple of times now, and I see no way any useful extrapolations can be made, because of the ambiguity of the data, the often contradictory definitions and the failure to address fundamental methodological issues."
JTC One of the chief criticisms is that the 85-page study, written by Marty Rimm when he was an undergraduate in the electrical and computer engineering department at Carnegie-Mellon, generalizes about "the information superhighway" and computer users in general; Mr. Rimm's study, the critics note, was based on data gathered primarily from a subset of private bulletin board systems that specialize in selling pornographic content to adults.
Such private bulletin board systems typically cannot be reached through the Internet or commercial on-line services and typically require a credit card and proof of age.
"It's as if one purported to have done a study of violence among American men when the sample of men studied were prisoners in the federal penitentiary at Marion, Ill.," said Michael Godwin, legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobbying group.
Mr. Rimm's faculty adviser gave the study a mixed review. Marvin A. Sirbu, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie-Mellon, said it was "a very clever analysis of what people are downloading from adult bulletin boards" and described the methodology as "solid."
But, Mr. Sirbu said, "the report needed a lot of editing from the versions I saw, and there was a tendency to want to make generalizations that couldn't be made. I advised him to remove things that were not clearly supported by the data.
"In the area of Usenet analysis, the data available was not nearly as good as the data available on adult bulletin boards."
Mr. Rimm, now a researcher for Carnegie-Mellon in computer science, shrugs off the criticisms. "We encourage people to read the study with care and draw their own conclusions, because the study will stand on its own merits," he said.