Look before you click – online chat lines

Look before you click – online chat lines – Brief Article

Randy Dotinga

You’re logged on to an Internet chat room for gay men. You jump into the conversation, describing your favorite sexual position and the last time you got lucky. You use a few choice words that aren’t allowed even on NYPD Blue.

People from around the country are reading everything you type. One of them is a federal prosecutor from Louisville, Ky. In a few weeks you’re behind bars. The charge: spreading smut over the Internet. It’s a frightening scenario. But at least for now, it’s only an imaginary nightmare.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the prospect of chat-room police evaporated when the justices threw out the 1996 Communications Decency Act, an Internet censorship bill. But the government is still trying to keep a close eye on what you do on-line.

The latest threat to Internet freedom comes from conservative senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who is sponsoring a bill that would ban distribution, via commercial Internet sites, of material considered “harmful to minors.” Hearings are scheduled to begin in February.

The bill isn’t as restrictive as the CDA, which the Supreme Court rejected in a flash. That act would have banned transmission of “obscene” or “indecent” material to minors or transmission of “patently offensive” material, including depictions of sexual or excretory functions, in a way that could be accessed by a minor. The court found the act overly broad and noted the difficulty in verifying the ages of Internet users — so that an attempt to restrict what is available to minors could restrict adult speech on-line as well.

Unlike the CDA, Coats’s proposal would allow some sexually explicit’ content on-line, but only if it has “value,” such as artistic, cultural, or educational merit. Still, activists are worried. “This kind of censorship is a real threat,” says Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet civil liberties group. “What’s criminalized is ultimately going to be defined by individual juries and judges in courts all around the country. Judges in New York City or San Francisco may have a very different sense of what has legitimate educational value than those in Memphis, Tenn., or Provo, Utah. “

The Coats bill probably wouldn’t affect ordinary computer users, because it is aimed specifically at sex businesses on the Internet, says Ann Beeson, Internet issues attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. But it would mean trouble for anyone who talks dirty while trying to sell something on-line — like a novel, a safer-sex product, a porn movie, or even a gay magazine or newspaper. “There’s a danger, ” Weitzner says, “that this kind of statute will reduce the speech of adults — including gay adults — to the lowest common denominator, the most conservative view of what’s acceptable in the country. “

But Erik Hotmire, a spokesman for Coats, says critics do not understand the bill. Its purpose, he says, is to protect children by limiting pornography in the Internet, and standards would be set by the Supreme Court, not by local jurisdictions.

Beyond new federal laws, experts say, there are other threats to on-line freedoms for gay men and lesbians. While there are countless resources on the Internet for gays, thousands of people can’t access them. That’s because as concern over ponography has grown, the sale of “filtering software” has skyrocketed. More than a dozen brands are making their way into homes, public libraries, and schools. Each tries to keep computer users out of “inappropriate” areas, such as pornography sites.

But gay Web sites don’t have to include dirty pictures to be blocked. in a new report the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation says filtering software routinely censors ordinary gay Web sites such as the home page of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs. Some manufacturers responded to GLAAD’s complaints by reviewing their software, while others refused. ” I can’t think of one that doesn’t either directly or indirectly block gay and lesbian educational resources, ” says Loren Javier, GLAAD’s interactive media director.

If computer users can get on-line without being blocked, almost anything goes. America Online, for example, doesn’t monitor chat rooms created by members, and people using them can say just about anything as long as they don’t harass anyone.

But the Internet isn’t a law-free zone. Some have found that out the hard way. In San Diego four men were charged in November with having sex with a 16-year-old boy after meeting him in a ” San Diego Men for Men” Internet chat room. Three of the men pleaded guilty.

Prosecutor Laurie Martin says talking to the minor on the Internet wasn’t illegal. But having sex with him was. Sending pornography to children through a computer is also against the law, Martin says. “People aren’t always honest [about their age]. If you go ahead and send stuff, you’re putting yourself in danger of committing a felony. “

Looking at on-line child ponography is another quick ticket to prison. ” There’s a lot of ignorance out there, ” Beeson says. “Some people think if it’s on the Internet, it must be legal. It doesn’t occur to them that it might be criminal to look at it. You should avoid at all costs even looking at a single image on-line that is child ponography.

Under a new federal law called the Child Ponography Prevention Act of 1996, pictures that aren’t of actual children but look like they are — such as those of models who look 12 but are actually 18 or over — are considered child ponography. The ACLU opposes the new law.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

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