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Report on pornography draws fire on the Internet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The fury of the Internet has poured out upon Marty Rimm.

As the author of what critics say is a badly flawed study purporting to document pervasive pornography on computer networks, Mr. Rimm, 31, has been vilified and cursed -- flamed, in on-line parlance -- before potential audiences of tens of millions in cyberspace.

"You have no idea what a 'real' hatchet job is," Mr. Rimm, a Pittsburgh resident and Atlantic City native, wrote to readers last week on one of the 14,000 Internet bulletin boards known as newsgroups. "You don't -- understand -- the meaning of savage. My lynching has been more savage and more personal than any other in the history of the Net."

Mr. Rimm has been accused of exaggeration in his study, "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway." But when he talks about being figuratively lynched by a vocal segment of the Internet community, he is hardly overstating.

"My greasy little friend," gloated a New York man writing in the same newsgroup, whose address is "alt.internet.media-coverage," "you are the [expletive] of the hour, now left twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."

The flaming began after Time magazine cranked out an "exclusive" in early June featuring his findings.

Now, Mr. Rimm's 85-page study appears in the Georgetown Law Journal's latest issue. It comes at a time when Congress is debating whether, and how, to crack down on obscenity transmitted via computer networks.

Politicians backing stiff anti-porn legislation have read Mr. Rimm's conclusions into the Congressional Record -- that 83.5 percent of images available on the computer net work called Usenet are pornographic; 71 percent of Usenet pornography originates from commercial "adult" electronic bulletin boards, some of whose owners have been jailed under obscenity laws; and more and more children are logging onto networks "where pornography permeates the digital landscape."

Mr. Rimm had been scheduled to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on computer pornography. But he was removed from the witness list after his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, said it was investigating his methods in doing the study.

Leading voices from the libertarian-leaning Internet culture -- already feeling embattled by the explosive growth, commercialization and threats to regulate the freewheeling networks -- have pounced on Mr. Rimm and his study.

If the study proves anything, the critics say, it is only that sexually explicit images account for one-half of 1 percent of Internet traffic.

"The reason to debunk it is not because it is saying things that are inconvenient, it's because it is saying things that are false," said Mike Godwin, chief counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of Mr. Rimm's outspoken critics.

Academics in fields of computer science, statistical research and ethics have also joined the fray against Mr. Rimm. The critics attacked first the methodology, then the man behind the study -- ripping him with accusations ranging from sloppy math to unethically buttering up with profane compliments the pornographers he was studying. And they far from approve of the alleged surreptitious monitoring of students' computer habits Carnegie Mellon, where Mr. Rimm did his research as an

undergraduate in electrical and computer engineering.

Mr. Rimm, who just got his degree this year, has applied to graduate schools. Flamers have demanded that his diploma be revoked, and that graduate schools be warned not to accept him.

Private E-mail in which Mr. Rimm praises a porn purveyor as a friend and "genius" has been spread across the Internet, along with excerpts from an unpublished satire, "The Pornographer's Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men & Make Lots of Money."

"Some people thought he might be an anti-porn activist in disguise," said Mr. Godwin. "But he's been very outspoken in saying he's pro-First Amendment, anti-censorship. What is his agenda, other than a certain amount of self-promotion?"

For the time being, Mr. Rimm is not going to tell.

"I stepped into a minefield," Mr. Rimm said. He declined to be interviewed, citing an ethics inquiry into his work launched a week ago by the Carnegie Mellon administration.

As it turns out, Mr. Rimm is no stranger to minefields.

His public career began colorfully in 1981, when, as a 16-year-old junior at Atlantic City High School, he donned Arab robes and paid a visit to the Playboy Hotel and Casino to bolster his own survey that said 64 percent of his classmates had gambled in the casinos.

Though his figures, and claims of royal treatment and easy credit as a teen-age sheik were challenged by the casino industry, Mr. Rimm was thrust briefly into the limelight and his study was used to support state legislation raising the legal gambling age from 18 to 21.

"It was cute and funny at the time -- here's this 16-year-old kiwho did something outstanding," said Ed Looney, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Then in 1984, Mr. Rimm, as a sophomore at the University of South Florida, presented results of a study that he said showed New Jersey high school students were gambling "in epidemic proportions."

The then-chairman of the state Casino Control Commission, Walter Read, called the study "less than credible."

But gambling critics embraced the results. Arnie Wexler, a former director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, said last week that Mr. Rimm's work "was the first indication that we had a problem with kids and gambling in America."

Mr. Rimm self-published a turgid novel about the Atlantic City casinos, "An American Playground," in 1990.

Mr. Wexler, who travels the country giving seminars on compulsive gambling, recalled "what a bright young guy [Mr. Rimm] was, and how smart he was."

And Mr. Rimm has his defenders.

"Rimm brought out a black eye for them, and they're trying to minimize it," said Bruce Taylor, president of the anti-porn National Law Center for Children and Families. Taylor and Godwin met last month with Senate legal staffers to present their opposing views on the Internet porn issue.

In an interview, Mr. Taylor said Mr. Rimm's study proves "there's a lot of porn out there, and kids can get to it by the Internet." The critics, he said, are "trying to find technical ways to discredit his study, but it's still up there. And they're going to attack the messenger, because they need to discredit him to prevent his study from getting a foothold."

Mr. Godwin disagreed. "This is not just an example of the Net attacking people who are perceived as attacking it," he said.

"I have no doubt that people are flaming Marty Rimm without grounds. [But] you have to uncouple those kinds of flames from the substantive criticism of Marty Rimm and his study," said Mr. Godwin.

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