First Monday

Cyberporn: The Controversy

This article examines the conflict that cyberporn raises between the mission of libraries, the rights of library patrons, and the law. In the first part of this essay, the terms "pornography", "obscenity", and "child pornography" are defined, followed by an exploration of the issues surrounding the availability of cyberporn on public accessible computers in libraries. The views of librarians on cyberporn are examined as well as legal and feminist perspectives.


Issues Surrounding the Availability of Cyberporn on Public-Access Computers in Libraries
Library & Information Science Perspectives
Legal Perspectives
Feminist Perspectives



"Condemning the Internet for personal decisions to view pornographic material is like a patient blaming the thermometer for his fever."
Terrence D. Nollen [1]
"Throughout our history the political right has from time to time tried to repress hated thoughts. Now elements of the left want to tame the vigor of American speech to protect the sensibilities of groups they favor, women and minorities. If the tamers understood Jefferson, they would know that freedom is safer"
Anthony Lewis [2]

The Internet is fast becoming an essential tool in libraries for learning and communicating. According to the American Library Association (ALA), 60.4% of the nearly 9,000 American public libraries offer their patrons Internet access [3]. As with all technologies, the Internet has brought with it benefits as well as drawbacks. It is the latter - in particular, the availability of pornography on the Internet (or cyberporn) - with which this essay is concerned. As the debate over access to sexual materials in cyberspace heats up and more libraries offer Internet access, librarians increasingly will be forced to grapple with the conflict between the profession's mission, patrons' rights, and the law.

Regarding the structure of this paper, the terms "pornography," "obscenity", and "child pornography" will be defined in the next section of the paper, followed by an exploration of the issues surrounding the availability of cyberporn on public-access computers in libraries. I will then examine the views of librarians on regulating cyberporn and then I will shift to legal and feminist perspectives. It must be noted that this essay will deal with the issues of cyberporn only as it pertains to the United States even though such material can be accessed worldwide. Discussion on the technicalities of filtering (e.g., what blocking/filtering software is available on the market, which works most effectively, etc.), and library policies on Internet access (e.g., how to create such document) are outside the scope of this article.




In general, this is material that presents sexual content of some sort with the intent of being arousing. Like any other uses of the press, such material is presumptively legal under the First Amendment, with the exception of obscenity or child pornography (Godwin, 1996). For the purposes of this paper, no distinction will be made between the various types of pornography (e.g., erotica, hardcore, softcore, etc.). They will all be regarded as pornography.


Material is considered "obscene" if it meets all three conditions of the so-called "Miller test" [4]:

  1. The average person, applying contemporary standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (in sex).
  2. The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state (or federal law).
  3. The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Child Pornography

This material is illegal regardless of whether or not it is obscene. Under federal law, "child pornography" is any visual material that depicts a child either engaging in explicit sexual acts or posing in a "lewd and lascivious" manner, when the manufacture of such material involves the actual use of a real child. Thus, computer-generated material that seems to depict children engaged in sexual activity but does not use real children would not be child pornography, although it almost certainly would be obscene (Godwin, 1996).


Issues Surrounding the Availability of Cyberporn on Public-Access Computers in Libraries

In response to the United States Supreme Court's ruling on the unconstitutional Communications Decency Act (CDA) [5], the ALA, through its Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), issued a "Statement on Internet Filtering" [6]. Part of the document praised the Justices' recognition of the importance of enabling individuals to communicate worldwide by allowing libraries to continue making Internet contents available with the same Constitutional protections that apply to printed materials on libraries' shelves. In another section of the Statement, the ALA explains how blocking/filtering software are antithetical to the profession's mission and believes. We shall now examine these objections as described in the "Statement on Internet Filtering" and the problems they pose to librarians.

From the outset, the ALA reminds the public that "publicly supported libraries are governmental institutions subject to the First Amendment [7], which forbids them from restricting the information based on viewpoint or content discrimination." Next, the organization explains that the general problem with blocking/filtering software is that it renders information inaccessible and that "libraries are places of inclusion rather than exclusion." That is, librarians select - as opposed to censor [8]. Specific problems with such programs are that the criteria for blocking content are vague and subjectively applied. Thus, filters tend to impose the manufacturer's viewpoint on the community, a perspective that is one-sided. Since blocking/filtering software functions on an "all-or-nothing" (e.g., it excludes all sites containing the word "sex") and "one-size-fits-all" basis (i.e., the software cannot be adapted to each individual user's age and maturity level), it often eliminates materials it is not designed to exclude. It would be somewhat less of a problem if producers reveal what is being blocked or provide the means for users to reach sites that have been barred, but they do not. The last objection to blocking/filtering software stems from the implied babysitter role. Most of these products are designed for the home market; they are intended to respond to the preferences of parents making decisions for their own children. By installing this software on public access computers in libraries, librarians would, in effect, serve in loco parentis, where they would be imposing restrictions on children's access, regardless of whether or not each child's parents sanction such an act in the first place. Moreover, by using blocking/filtering gadgets, the library would create tacit assurance to parents that their children will not be able to access materials that they do not wish their children to see. Total avoidance of things objectionable to an individual is not a guarantee in life to begin with. Furthermore, librarians should not have to expose themselves to possible legal liability and litigation for "breaking" this implied contract.

quotation from article

One can see that the ALA's objections to blocking/filtering basically boil down to intellectual freedom - the freedom of expression and its corollary, the freedom to receive information. Regulation of the pursuit of information runs not only counter to the First Amendment, but also the ALA's Code of Ethics; Library Bill of Rights; Access to Electronic Information Services, and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights; Statement on Internet Filtering; and Resolution on the Use of Internet Filters on which these documents are based. As with any profession, the librarian's code of ethics is the most important document that codifies and makes known to its members as well as the public the principles that guide the profession. These are the standards by which our profession is judged. The first two statements of the code are the most relevant to the issue of blocking/filtering in libraries. Librarians cannot and should not embrace such software because:

I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
II. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources (ALA, 1995).

From the patron's perspective, the first three points of the Library Bill of Rights apply to blocking/filtering, the first being that:

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation (ALA, 1996b).

Clearly, by using blocking/filtering software in libraries, some patrons would be denied information that might interest and/or enlighten them. One might think that by sanctioning blocking/filtering software, librarians, in actuality, are contradicting the profession's philosophies because the software manufacturer's views are being denied. However, as the second point in the Bill of Rights states:

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval (Ibid.).

If a library adopts blocking/filtering software, it would fail in its efforts to provide materials presenting all points of view. There would only be one position available - that of the software producer. This type of "cyber-dictatorship/tyranny" defies the democratic values of the United States. Therefore, the Bill of Rights instructs that:

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment (Ibid.).

Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks explains more clearly how the Library Bill of Rights specifically applies to electronic resources such as the Internet. The document reaffirms that "[l]ibraries and librarians should not deny or limit access to information available via electronic resources because of its allegedly controversial content or because of the librarian's personal beliefs or fears of confrontation [my emphasis]. Information retrieved or utilized electronically should be considered constitutionally protected unless determined otherwise by a court with appropriate jurisdiction" because "[l]ibraries, acting within their mission and objectives, must support access to information on all subjects that serve the needs or interests of each user, regardless of the user's age or the content of the material" (ALA, 1996a).

The most explicit document published by the ALA on this issue is the Statement on Internet Filtering and its resolution. The Supreme Court's conclusion in Reno v. ACLU (a.k.a. the Communications Decency Act case) [9] - that "the vast democratic fora of the Internet" merit full constitutional protection - underlies the ALA's affirmation that the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the First Amendment as well as the Library Bill of Rights.


Library & Information Science Perspectives

A search in LISA (Library and Information Science Abstracts) for materials on blocking/filtering revealed that the vast majority of authors oppose such action in libraries. In fact, only one article appeared in support of blocking/filtering. Its writer, Michael A. Banks (1998) argues that not everything on the Internet is appropriate for everybody in the same way that not every book or magazine published is fit for all. Thus, some discrimination is required in choosing what a public institution offers via the Internet. He draws on the analogy of how even though libraries offer many magazines, they do not subscribe to Hustler because, according to Banks, " ... that would be an inappropriate addition to their collections" [10]. Therefore, if one transfers the preceding situation to Internet materials, librarians should not be obliged to provide access to the entire cyberspace. To freedom of speech defenders, Banks suggests that they frame the Internet access debate around the real-world books and magazines analogy. "In that light," he claims, "it is easy to see the absurdity of uncontrolled Internet access for children and other patrons. If the sort of content access that some advocates for the Internet were to be applied to conventional library content, Hustler magazine, neo-Nazi books and pamphlets, and worse objectionable material would have to be placed in juvenile and children's as well as general library collections" [11].

Banks also conjectures what he considers as the root of the filtering issue. He believes that much of the problem stems from the differences between not subscribing to Hustler and not receiving pornographic, racist, and other objectionable Internet content. For the printed magazine, one does not have to do anything in order to avoid a subscription, whereas for the Internet, one needs to act in order to keep pornography at bay. He muses that this need to participate confuses some people into mistaking positive pro-action for repression. After all, "[n]o one demands that libraries subscribe to Hustler," and so Banks feels "that no one should demand that libraries grant full and unrestricted access to the Internet to everyone" [12]. It is interesting to note the mini-biography at the end of the article does not mention that Banks holds a library science degree nor that he works in a library [13]. Perhaps if he had had been trained as a librarian, he would not be pro-blocking/filtering.

John Maxymuk, a reference librarian at Rutgers University, half agrees with Banks. On the one hand, he does not advocate filters at present because he believes they are ineffective, and not because he considers them to be an abridgement to free speech. On the other hand, since libraries are not Internet Service Providers (ISPs), he does not see any ethical obligation to provide free access to all forms of Internet communication. "Communication and information may interact as forms on the Net, but there are clear distinctions between them - we don't offer the public franking privileges or free telephone service after all" [14]. As for the belief that librarians are gate-keepers of free speech, he asserts that librarians are, in reality, not so:

We make decisions every day to filter what information users will be able to access within our physical or electronic walls. We decide, either consciously or by default, not to spend our financial resources on skin magazines, violent, illiterate rumblings from hate groups, and general lunatic ramblings on any topic. We make these types of decisions, and we need to own up to the responsibility to do so wisely and publicly ... [T]his is not censorship. We are not removing material from the market; it is still freely available from many other sources. [15]
quotation from article

So far, pro-blocking/filtering sentiments and the middle-of-the-road view have been presented. Even though we have already heard some anti-blocking/filtering arguments earlier in this paper, this position is worth re-examining this time from individual librarians' points of view, as opposed to the collective professional stance as represented by the ALA. Harry Willems, assistant director and consultant for the Southeast Kansas Library System, adds to the ALA's list of objections the "Big Brother" phenomenon that can exist in some of these blocking/filtering systems where the manufacturers maintain a sign-up sheet by time so that a systems operator (sysop) can determine, for whatever purposes, exactly who visits what sites and when [16]. Doug Johnson, a district media supervisor for public schools, raises another objection to filters which is that this technology does not allow under-age users' mental and moral development. In his capacity as an educator, he calls for the need to give students "the freedom, responsibility and training to make good decisions. Real learning, the genuine practice of exercising one's ability to make good choices, cannot occur in a protected hothouse environment that never gives one the chance to make mistakes" [17].


Legal Perspectives

Legal arguments about Internet pornography are centered around the issues of 1) definitions, especially that of "obscenity," "indecency," and "community standards" (Alexander, 1998; Branscomb, 1995a; Byassee, 1995; Cate, 1996; Chiu, 1995; Faucette, 1995; Goldman, 1995; Kim, 1995; Swensen, 1998; and, Tunick, 1998); 2) the constitutionality of legislations (proposed or enacted) such as the Communications Decency Act 1995 (Arora, 1997; Cole, 1999; Craig, 1998; Doherty, 1999; Lessig, 1998; Maisano, 1998; O'Donnell, 1998; Pagidas, 1998; Ramsey, 1997; and, Rohr, 1999); The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 (Anon., 1999; and, Wasserman, 1997); The Child Protection, User Empowerment and Free Expression in Interactive Media Study Act (Cate, 1996; Kennedy, 1997; and, Rappaport, 1995); and, The MacKinnon-Dworkin Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance [18] (Judges, 1995; Rubin, 1996; Saunders, 1998; and, Strossen, 1995); 3) whether or not existing obscenity laws are adequate for application to the Internet (Byassee, 1995; Stepka, 1997; and, Sunstein, 1995). These various arguments will not be discussed in detail as they are beyond the expertise of the author. However, this section will focus on an article that was published in a law journal - but was not written by a lawyer - and the reactions to it by several writers - some lawyers and some not. Examination of this particular work is deemed appropriate due to its notoriety, controversial nature, and far-reaching influence.

The article concerned is known as the so-called "Rimm study" or the "Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) study." Martin Rimm, the principle researcher as well as sole author, was a 30 year-old, electrical engineering undergraduate when he published the study in the Georgetown Law Journal (Rimm, 1995b). The purpose of the study was to explore "pornography from the perspective of the pornographer by performing a content analysis of the written descriptions provided by the pornographers." It also "explore[d] pornography from the perspective of the consumer by examining consumer download habits for various classifications of images" (Ibid.). To facilitate data analyses:

... the research team downloaded all available pornographic images from five popular Usenet boards over a four month period. In addition, the team obtained descriptive listings from sixty-eight commercial "adult" BBS [Bulletin Board System] (sic.) containing 450,620 pornographic images, animations, and text files that had been downloaded by consumers 6.4 million times; six "adult" BBS (sic.) with approximately 75,000 files for which only partial download information was available; and another twenty-seven "adult" BBS (sic.) containing 391,790 files for which no consumer download information was available. Thus a total of 917,410 descriptive listings were analyzed for content by the research team. Finally, approximately 10,000 actual images were randomly downloaded or obtained via adult BBS (sic.), the Usenet or CD-ROM. These images were used to verify the accuracy of the written descriptions provided in the listings (Ibid.).

The more significant results from the CMU study are as follows (Ibid.):

Because the sample size is "several orders of magnitude larger than previously published studies of either pornography content or consumption," Rimm maintains that the findings "may have serious implications for legal theory and public policy related to pornography" (Ibid.). The most complex questions legalists will have to deal with concern child pornography, limiting access to minors, and obscenity standards, whereas public policy makers will have to deal with questions pertaining to privacy. In addition, portions of the methodology may also be applied to study products other than pornography that are marketed and distributed over the computer. One could conceivably also use computer networks to study other activities sometimes considered as threats to society such as bomb manufacturing or computer hacking.

The Rimm/CMU study drew much attention prior to and after its publication in the Georgetown Law Journal. Reactions were occasionally positive, but generally they were negative. Its "supporters" tend to be the other three contributors to the same issue of the journal in which Rimm's article appeared [20]. Anne Wells Branscomb - a former Counsel member of the American Bar Association Science & Technology Section, a former Chair of its Communications Law Division, and a lawyer who specializes in communications and computers - was the first to respond to the Rimm Study. She commends the CMU study "for offering a methodology for the academically rigorous tracking of pornographic images" [21]. However, it must be noted that this was all the acknowledgement she gave to Rimm's study. She devotes the rest of her article to examining alternative legal and technical tools at the disposal of those who would attempt to restrict pornography on the Internet, and to making an assessment on the efficacy of such restrictions should they be imposed [22]. According to Branscomb, there are three main strategies for coping with "objectionable" materials in cyberspace. The first lies in the production of more attractive products:

"Clearly the easiest, if not the cheapest, strategy to cope with pornography on the Internet is to produce visually exciting video images for distribution that are more attractive to the viewing audience than the lurid images that many find objectionable." [23]

The suggestion above is probably the least constructive of the three because it is based on the assumption that the Internet consists of nothing but pornography, and that one sees such materials without even trying. Such a presumption is false. Karen Schneider of the Internet Filter Assessment Project (TIFAP) estimated in 1998 that of the millions of Web pages on the Internet, only slightly more than 22,000 are pornographic sites [24]. Thus, the ratio between non-pornographic and pornographic Web sites does not pose the threat that Branscomb inferred. Later, she does admit that even if some of us wanted to access the salacious image files, "we would find that we d[o] not understand the appropriate protocols, ha[ve] the wrong software, or [lack] the time to download BMP, GIF, or JPEG files. This does not mean that access to these materials will not become easier as user-friendly software becomes available. It does mean that accidental exposure to undesirable sexually explicit images is extremely unlikely ..." [my emphasis] [25].

The second strategy in dealing with Internet pornography is appealing to people to not purchase it for Branscomb believes that social pressure can be very effective. She suggests that this crusade against pornography can be achieved by promoting religious values, or other community shared ethical values. Ultimately, this persuasion would result in a decrease in, if not, total lack of interest in purchasing pornography. Consequently, the market would shrivel and die a natural death [26]. Branscomb is correct in assuming that consumers enable the pornography industry to thrive. However, it would be almost impossible to completely destroy such market because of the difficulty in altering human behavior and attitudes [27]. As the last suggestion, Branscomb thinks that objectionable materials that have been proven to cause measurable harm either directly to users or to those abused by such consumers (e.g., children by pedophiles) justify a legal foundation for censorship [28]. However, if those who exhibit such anti-social behavior represent only the minority of the population that has access to the electronically distributed materials, and others find consumption of the materials a distraction or harmless pleasure, no compelling public interest exists in forbidding distribution. As Branscomb points out:

"There are less obtrusive ways of curbing illicit behavior than restricting access to pornography for an entire population of potential users. After all, we do not prohibit the sale of knives because some people use them to murder. It is entirely possible that sexually explicit information products may serve legitimate public policy goals, or in the aggregate, do little overall harm to the body politic." [29]

Having recommended the strategies above, one of the conclusions Branscomb arrives at is that it is unclear a flourishing traffic in sexually explicit image files over the Internet presents an insurmountable barrier to civilized conduct on electronic networks:

"It may be a passing phase marked by the introduction of a new technology that finds existing sexual image archives a ready source of marketable content. Indeed, the recent advent of the World Wide Web as a vehicle to transport information promises to unleash an enthusiastic number of entrepreneurs to produce non-pornographic digital materials for distribution over the Internet and other networks on the Information Superhighway. Thus, pornography may not dominate, but may become only one of many types of material available in digital format, in much the same way that magazines offering sexually explicit photographs and text occupy but a small niche in a very large publishing industry." [30]

Branscomb's article is followed by a paper by University of Michigan feminist law professor and co-author of the Minneapolis and Indianapolis pornography ordinances, Catharine A. MacKinnon. Unlike Branscomb who mentions the Rimm study almost in passing, MacKinnon uses it as proof for and reaffirmation of her objections to pornography:

  1. Pornography on computers is part of real life, not apart from it [as] made indelibly clear by the Carnegie Mellon study [31].
  2. The research team documents beyond question the simplest and most obvious, if some of the most contested, facts. Overwhelmingly, it is men who use pornography ... Even many of the women who use it, Carnegie Mellon found, are paid by pornographers to be there, in order to give men the impression, while online, that women enjoy women being violated [32].
  3. Women are disproportionately used in violating ways in pornography. More than ninety-nine percent of all the bestiality pictures studied on the "Amateur Action" bulleting board, for instance, present women having sex with animals, in spite of the fact that nearly fifty percent of the pornography studied has men in it. The more violating the act, the more women have it committed against them [33].
  4. [T]he more violating the material, the more it is wanted, out of proportion to supply ... When a woman is marketed as being intensively physically harmed, consumer demand doubles; fellatio gets a lukewarm response, but downloads double for "choking" [34].
  5. The Carnegie Mellon study disproves allegations that those who oppose the pornography industry have distorted its largely benign reality through "the use of highly selected examples." By focusing on pornography as used, the Carnegie Mellon results also counter the view that "most commercial pornography ... is not violent" [35].

One simply needs to read any of MacKinnon's works (e.g., the ordinances, Only Words Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality, etc.) to realize that she is not and cannot be impartial to the Rimm study results. In fact, of all three writers featured in the same issue as Rimm, MacKinnon awards the research by far the highest seal of approval, commending the research team for having had "the vision to see, the technical acumen to capture, and the courage to expose what is there" [36].

The last response to Rimm's study is by Carlin Meyer, a professor at the New York Law School. Like Branscomb, she uses the CMU study as a springboard to her agenda, rather than as central to her own argument like MacKinnon. Meyer argues that prohibiting pornography is futile for a couple of reasons: 1) any ban would be necessarily overbroad, and thus, it would run afoul of the First Amendment; and, 2) censorship contributes to the circumscription of sexual material consumed:

"The more we censor ... the more we leave it to pornographers to define, delineate, and influence our beliefs, imaginings, and even our sexual desires, and the more we encourage the resort to porn for information, titillation, security, and satisfaction. Pornographers respond ... with the same techniques of marketing used in mainstream advertising: playing on and fostering anxiety by presenting an idealized yet not quite attainable world, a world to envy, which requires continuous replenishment of the product to retain the fantasy of perfection." [37]

Therefore, according to Meyer, we should ignore the growing presence of cybersmut and concentrate instead on expanding access - particularly for young people - to online sexual discussions and depiction, and on joining them in discussion and criticism of what they see and "hear" [38]. She reasons that this lack of information about sex and sexuality, along with societal norms that treat it as taboo, contribute to societal problems from teen pregnancy to incest and sexual abuse. For example, "[y]oungsters commit suicide because they have no access to information about homosexuality or ways to talk to other gay and lesbian youngsters. Or they develop psychiatric problems because they have no outlet to express non-conformist sexual longings" [39].

How Meyer's comments tie in with the Carnegie Mellon study is that, in her opinion, the research supports the notion that it is the creation of sex as a taboo subject that creates the market for hardcore and paraphilic imagery [40]. Rimm's study also "ultimately shows ... the tremendous potential the Information Superhighway offers us to break the pornographer's monopoly on sexually explicit expression and to formulate, through discussion, stories, fantasies, and pictures online, a new sexual 'truth'" [41]. The main lesson to be learned from the project "may be that government should intervene, not censor, but to increase access to the Internet by women, by persons of color in the United States and worldwide, and by older persons" [42].

The articles by Branscomb, MacKinnon, and Meyer constituted the favorable views on Rimm's study. There was one more supporter - Philip Elmer-Dewitt - whose article became the July 3, 1995 cover story of Time magazine, thanks to an exclusive on Rimm's then soon-to-be published project [43]. Both the Rimm study as well as Elmer-Dewitt's article will be the focus of the following section in which criticisms of the study and article will be presented.

Early in the week of June 19, 1995, prior to the publication of the Time cover story, Elmer-Dewitt contacted Mike Godwin (staff council for Electronic Frontier Foundation) for comments on Rimm's study. Since Godwin was barred from reading the study due to the non-disclosure agreement between Time, Rimm, and the Georgetown Law Journal, and therefore, could not comment reliably, he urged Elmer-Dewitt to contact Donna Hoffman and her husband, Thomas Novak, at Vanderbilt University for a second opinion as the couple are experts in surveying Net usage and in modeling marketing strategies in this medium. Although Elmer-Dewitt did elicit one of the magazine's field reporters to interview Hoffman, he never did speak to her himself. However, Hoffman and Novak critiqued Rimm's study and Elmer-Dewitt's article when they were published. In both Hotwired's special issue, "JournoPorn: Dissection of the Time Scandal" [44] and on their own Project 2000 Web site [45], they charged that "conceptual, logical, and methodological flaws" run rampant in the CMU study [46]. In their analysis of the Rimm study, Hoffman and Novak commented on the research in terms of its 1) misrepresentation, 2) manipulation, 3) lack of objectivity, and, 4) methodological flaws.



Lack of Objectivity

"The categories he uses for "linguistic parsing" are subjective, not objective as he states. In Appendix A, he states that "extremely large breasts" are counted as hard-core. Breasts are intrinsically part of female biology, whether large of not ... In Appendix B, "PREGNANT" was counted as "hardcore" perhaps because the woman was described as "spread cunt, milking tits." Lactation and pregnancy happen to be fairly normal female conditions. Since the image portrays no "action" other than milking ... it should not be labeled hardcore.

... All the materials were sorted first by child/teen descriptions. If they are any indications that the material might be pornography the sorting stops there. If not, the description was tested for paraphilia. And on through hardcore to softcore. The flow of information favors whatever gets tested first. For instance, if an image of an adult woman with shaved pubic hair was described by "pretty, young, hairless, blond," the image would stop and be counted as hebe/pedophilia because of "young and hairless," rather than being counted as softcore because of "pretty and blonde." The flow of information favors ordering the information along the most deviant construction. If Rimm has run his tests looking first for softcore characteristics, his numbers would change.

CMU ... has a bias in the Internet usegroups it carries: at the time of Rimm's study, for instance, was available, while alt.culture.theory was not; the fact that some newsgroups are not available at CMU tends to bias Rimm's conclusions about what percentage of newsgroups post pornography.

Another significant factor is CMU's gender ratio: only 29% of students at CMU are women, which is relevant to any examination of sexual relations and practices there. Young men with little contact with women might access pictures of them instead of driving up the use of pornographic materials. This will skew Rimm's study as well." (Sigel and Sauer, 1995).

Methodological Flaws

David G. Post had been consulted by the editors of the Georgetown Law Journal on the Rimm study prior to its publication, but was not permitted to see the actual study. Three months after the meeting, the editors gave him a pre-publication copy, though. Like Hoffman and Novak, Post also noticed some methodological oddities in the study, the first being the discrepancy between the number of Usenet groups Rimm examined and the total percentage of pornographic newsgroups he came up with in the "Summary of Significant Results of the Carnegie Mellon Study." The CMU researchers determined that "[s]eventeen of the thirty-two alt.binaries newsgroups located on the Usenet contained pornography images." During a single seven-day period (September 21 to 27, 1994), the researchers logged 827 image postings to the "non-pornographic" newsgroups, and 4206 image postings to the "pornographic newsgroups." Thus, of the total 5033 (827 + 4206) images posted, 83.5% (4206) were to newsgroups that contain pornographic material. In the Summary, Rimm concludes that "83.5% of all images posted on the Usenet are pornographic." The correct conclusion should be that 83.5% of the images posted to a subset of newsgroups (i.e., alt-binaries) are to newsgroups that contain pornographic images (Post, 1995).

Later Rimm wrote:

"The best data concerning network pornography consumption comes from the Usenet, which itself constitutes only 11.5% of Internet traffic. Of this 11.5%, approximately 3% by message count, but 22% by byte counts (e.g., 2.5% of total Internet backbone traffic) is associated with Usenet newsgroups containing pornographic imagery."

Thus, according to Rimm's own figures, fewer than one-half of 1% of the messages on the Internet (3% of 11.5%) were "associated with" newsgroups that contain pornographic imagery; since some of the those messages are, presumably, not themselves pornographic, the actual proportion of pornographic messages was therefore even smaller than that.

No data are presented to support the claim that "... this study makes clear, studying pornography according to consumption, as opposed to availability, provides a much more revealing picture of the marketplace." Although Rimm's figures show that of the forty most popular newsgroups worldwide "only one - - contained encoded pornographic images," he claims that "when the data is [sic] classified by percent of news readers who subscribe to the newsgroups, three of the five most popular newsgroups are pornographic. Moreover, 20,644 of the 101,211 monthly Usenet posts in the top forty newsgroups, or 20.4%, are pornographic." Also, it is not clear where Rimm actually looked at 101,211 Usenet posts in the top forty newsgroups in order to determine that 20.4% of the postings "are pornographic".

In his "Summary of Significant Results," Rimm reports that "[p]edophilic and paraphilic pornography are widely available through various computer networks and protocols such as the Usenet, World Wide Web, and commercial 'adult' BBS." No evidence is presented to demonstrate that such material is available anywhere on the Web. Indeed, in Appendix C which deals with the results of a March 1995 Web Survey, Rimm reports locating only 123 Web sites containing any "sexually explicit imagery or materials," only 9 of which had any "pornography material" at all. Rimm provides no information that any of these sites - which, in any event, constitute far less than one-tenth of 1% of all Web sites - contain pedophilic or paraphilic material.

Brian Reid [55] read a pre-print of the Rimm study and concluded that Rimm committed "three 'beginner's errors" that rendered his data completely meaningless (Reid, 1995):

  1. The population selected is very homogenous. Even though Rimm did not identify the population, he included enough of his sample data to allow Reid to correlate his numbers with Rimm's for the same measurement period [56]. Rimm's data correlate exactly with Reid's for Pittsburgh newsgroups in that period. Only his university has widespread enough campus networking to make it possible for him to sample that large a population. It is, therefore, almost certain that he has measured his own university. The behavior of computer-using students at a high-tech urban engineering school might not be very similar to the behavior of other student populations, let alone non-student populations.
  2. Rimm measured one time period (January 1995). When measuring human behavior about which very little is known, it is important to take numerous measurements over time and to look for time series.
  3. Rimm assumes that by seeing a data reference to an image or file, it is possible to tell what the individual did with it. Rimm used Reid's network measurement software tools to obtain his data. Since he does not mention anywhere in his article that he had altered the tools, Reid concludes that Rimm's data and his are derived from the same software. However, the number that he uses for "number of downloads" is the same as what Reid calls "number of readers" [57]. Reading has nothing to do with downloading. In fact, it is impossible for this measurement system to tell whether or not a file has been downloaded; it can tell whether or not a person has been presented with the opportunity to download a file, but it cannot tell whether the user answered "yes" or "no" [58].

Rimm claimed that his study was the first to examine pornographic content on the Internet. However, this is not true. Michael Mehta and Dwaine Plaza's study, first presented at a November, 1994 conference, claims that honor (McCullagh, 1995; Mehta and Plaza, 1997):

Rimm had telephoned Mehta asking if he could see a copy of Mehta's research. In order to justify his request, Rimm pretended that CMU was publishing a book on the topic. Since the request sounded official, Mehta and Plaza sent everything they had to Rimm, hoping for a reply - which they never receive. When the researchers next heard about Rimm, it was from the Georgetown Law Journal and Time. Mehta and Plaza didn't believe that "the parallels between the two studies are coincidences. There are a lot of similarities that can't be accounted by chance" [59]. Thus, to give credit where it is due, we shall proceed to examine Mehta and Plaza's study. Even if the similarities are not coincidences, their research is still worth discussing since it is far more valid and reliable than Rimm's study.

Mehta and Plaza examined the nature and content of 150 randomly selected pornographic images available in Usenet newsgroups in April 1994. Based on the assumption that commercial distributors have greater awareness of the legal implications of distributing explicit pornographic material, and that responsibility for posting such material can be directly traced to them, the researchers hypothesized that there was a greater likelihood of finding explicit material posted by anonymous, non-commercial users. They did not believe that commercial vendors would risk arousing public concern, precisely because the new regulations that are bound to accompany increased commercialization of the network may eventually prove to be overly restrictive. In addition, as these online services offer more than just access to computer pornography, the risk of jeopardizing their entire commercial operation may be too large a gamble.

Using content analysis, Mehta and Plaza identified themes that appear most frequently and explored the differences in the type of material posted by commercial and noncommercial users. Their findings suggest that:

  1. pornography on the Internet is readily available in a large quantity to any determined user.
  2. Commercial users appear to be more likely to post explicit pornographic material in public access newsgroups. Therefore, this fails to support their hypothesis.
  3. Most images appear to be taken directly from magazines and videos. It seems that non-commercial users select these images, unencumbered by editorial considerations or local obscenity laws. In this respect, they contrast magazine and video producers who need variety to sell their goods to as wide a market as possible. Internet users who post pornographic materials do not have to worry about marketability because they are uploading images regardless of sequencing, editing, or layout. Consequently, this selection process suggests that pornographic images on the Net tend to represent the dominant interests of network users.
  4. Although commercial vendors are more likely to post sexually explicit images than are non-commercial distributors, they do not post a statistically significantly different amount of material depicting illegal sexual acts such as bestiality. However, Mehta and Plaza's study reveal that commercial vendors are more likely to post images of children and adolescents than non-commercial distributors. This is probably because the nature of the medium is attractive to users with interests in this area who may have difficulty or face greater risks obtaining such material at more conventional venues such as adult book stores.

As with all research, there are limitations as to what researchers can humanly, financially, and temporally examine. In Mehta and Plaza's case, their analysis is, first, only on Usenet newsgroups, whereas a more thorough approach would involve examining BBSs and file transfer protocol (FTP) servers as well. Nevertheless, the sheer accessibility of newsgroups probably means that this source of information is used by the majority of Internet users retrieving pornographic material. Second, they only looked at images from newsgroups with sexually suggestive names. The authors acknowledge that other newsgroups with cryptic or non-specific names could also contain sexually related material. Last, the researchers only analyzed single-series graphic image files (e.g., gif, jpeg). There are also more advanced types of image files that simulate movement (e.g., mpegs). Since the researchers did not have the advanced equipment to view such moving files, they restricted their study to only single-series graphic files. Again, this should not invalidate the findings since most images available on Internet usegroups tend to be gif and jpeg files.

Mehta and Plaza paved the way for others to analyze pornographic content on the Internet. They suggested that future research examine related issues such as the effects of increasing commercialization of the Net on the type of pornography available; the differences between computer pornography and the more traditional types of pornography; and, characteristics of computer pornography viewers and their pattern of use.


Feminist Perspectives

Feminism consists of many branches such as liberal, Marxist, socialist, and black feminism. In this section, only radical and libertarian feminism will be examined because their ideologies are central to the anti-pornography and anti-censorship debates that emerged within the feminist movement [60]. First, we will look at both radical and libertarian feminist attitudes toward pornography, and then, we will review the social science evidence regarding pornography and some of the problems radical feminists see with this research tradition. It should be noted that this review is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather it touches on the most significant findings that influence conclusions drawn by feminists in the pornography debate.

Radical Feminism

According to radical feminists:

Pornography is the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or in words. In pornography, women are dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; treated as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; displayed as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; described as sexual objects that are mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; exhibited in postures of sexual submission; depicted as whores by nature; penetrated by objects or animals; degraded, injured, tortured, or shown as filthy or inferior, in a context that makes these conditions sexual; or, presented as just anatomical elements. [61]

Basically, these feminists argue that:

"... "pornography" ought to be suppressed (and its disseminators penalized) even if it had serious literary, artistic, scientific, or political value - because they sa[y], it [is] not speech but conduct; it [is] degrading to women; and its dissemination reinforce[s] sexual inequality between women and men and promote[s] sexual violence against women ... it support[s] and encourage[s] the sexual and economic exploitation of women by men; it present[s] a clear and present danger of harm not alone to the women who were victimized by the men who read and s[ee] it, but also to those who [are] forced, physically or economically, to take part in its creation." [62]

These attacks on pornography are on three basic levels [63]:

  1. Pornography is morally wrong.
  2. Pornography leads directly to violence against women.
  3. Pornography, in and of itself, is violence against women. It is violence in several ways:

Libertarian Feminism

Generally, libertarian feminists offer three types of arguments against censoring pornography [64]:

Social Science Research on Pornography

Correlational Studies

In one of the most important correlational studies to date, Larry Baron and Murray Strauss (1987; 1989) collected data from each of the fifty states and found a positive association between rape rates and sex magazine circulation rates [65], controlling for variables such as gender equality, social disorganization, and general cultural support for violence. Baron and Straus argued that the association was due to another yet-unmeasured factor - "hypermasculinity." They based this view on studies that found an association between rape and "macho" cultural patterns (McCarthy, 1980; Mosher and Anderson, 1986; and, Sanday, 1981) even though the cultural support for violence measure by the other researchers exhibited no direct association with rape.

Joseph Scott and Loretta Schwalm (1988a) conducted a similar study on the relationship between the number of rape and the availability of adult theaters. They found no correlation between the two variables, but they did discover an association between rape and outdoor magazine circulation rates [66] which, might initially be interpreted as support for Baron and Straus's hypermasculinity theory. "Initially" must be emphasized because Scott and Schwalm later conducted a study which resulted in a statistically significant relationship between rape and sex magazine circulation rates even when controlling for outdoor magazine circulation rates (Scott and Schwalm, 1988b).

Experimental Studies

Probably the most consistent findings come from studies that examine the reactions of male subjects to aggressive or violent pornography (i.e., involving sexual coercion or force) (Malamuth, 1985). Subjects who reported they would be likely to rape (if they thought they could get away with it) also exhibited higher levels of sexual arousal to depictions of rape than to those of consensual sex. Subjects who harbored relatively high levels of anger toward women were influenced to a greater degree than subjects who were less predisposed to aggression (Donnerstein, Linz, and Penrod, 1987; Gray, 1982; and, Malamuth, 1985).

The second significant finding concerns the critical importance of the portrayal of the victim reactions to sexual aggression. When victims were portrayed as abhorring sexual assault ("negative" victim reaction), male subjects indicated relatively little sexual arousal to rape scenes. On the other hand, when victims were portrayed as becoming involuntarily aroused ("positive" victim reaction), sexual arousal to rape scenes was as high as to portrayals of consensual sex (Malamuth, 1981a; Malamuth, 1981b; and, Malamuth, 1984). However, males who indicated a likelihood of raping if they would be undetected showed more sexual arousal to rape depictions than to consensual sex regardless of victims' reactions (Malamuth, 1981a; Malamuth, 1981b; and, Malamuth, 1984).

Studies on the effects of aggressive pornography on subjects' perception and attitudes yielded similar results, as did studies of non-explicit films with scenes of sexual violence. When compared to male subjects exposed to material involving either "negative" victim reactions or consensual sex, male subjects exposed to material involving "positive" victim reactions reported less sensitivity to rape victims as well as an increase in rape fantasies, in the self-reported possibility of committing rape, and in acceptance of rape myths and interpersonal violence against women (Donnerstein and Berkowitz, 1981; Donnerstein and Linz, 1986; Malamuth, 1981a; Malamuth and Check, 1981; and, Malamuth and Check, 1985).

Conclusions from laboratory aggression studies are difficult to draw due to the diversity of experimental designs, e.g., whether it was a male or female confederate of the experimenter who predisposed the subject to aggression by angering him; whether the target of the aggression was male or female; and whether the subject was given multiple opportunities to aggress against the target. However, the most significant findings are that aggressive depictions increased laboratory aggression toward women, and that non-pornographic aggressive material increased aggression toward women more than non-aggressive pornographic material (Donnerstein, 1980; Donnerstein, 1984; Donnerstein and Berkowitz, 1981; Malamuth, 1983; and, Malamuth, 1984).

Feminist Criticisms of Experimental Research

Although radical feminists and other anti-pornography activists use the experimental research to support their claims about the harm of pornography, their views do not depend upon this body of research. In fact, radical feminists criticize the fact that 1) experimental research, generally involving males studying males, has higher prestige than the evidence of harm taken from the testimony of victims of pornography or contained in the pictures of abuse itself (MacKinnon, 1986); 2) experimental research has higher prestige than social science surveys and testimonies that reveal the negative experiences of women with pornography, and clinical evidence provided by professionals who work with victims or with convicted and self-reported sex offenders [67]; and, 3) experimental research only measures whether increased exposure leads to increased & "pro-violent attitudes or behaviors above what is considered a societal norm" [68]. It does not measure "the effect of the general circulation of pornography in establishing a norm of dominating and exploitative sexuality throughout the culture" [69].



As the sociologist, Stanley Cohen, once wrote:

"Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other "right thinking" people." (Cohen, 1972)

Indeed, we, at the end of the 20th century, seem to be in the midst of such "moral panic." Perhaps, as Anne Branscomb suggested, cyberporn is just a passing phase marked by the introduction of a new technology. At any rate, it seems like the debate will remain for a while, and it will be interesting to see how the issues unfold and resolve - if they can be settled at all.End of article

About the Author

Joyce H-S Li holds a B.M. from Ohio University and a M.L.S. from Indiana University. She is currently a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include information ethics, in particular, privacy. The title of her dissertation is "Internet Privacy: A Study of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Influence on Legislation and Opinion, 1995-2000."


The author thanks Professors Beth Yakel, Stephen Almagno, and Ellen Detlefsen for their help.


1. Front cover of the Nebraska Library Association Quarterly, volume 26 (Fall 1995).

2. Back cover of the Journal of Information Ethics, volume 6 (Fall 1997).

3. This constitutes an increase of 27.8% from 1996.

4. Miller v. California (413 U.S. 15), 1973.

5. See Cate (1996); Gobla (1997); Goyal (1998); Lassiter (1997); McMurdo (1997); and, Simon (1998) for details on the Communications Decency Act.

6. Blocking/filtering in this context refers to software that restricts access to Internet content based on one of the following methods: a) an internal database of the product; b) a database maintained external to the product itself; c) certain ratings assigned to websites by a third party; d) content scanning with a keyword, phrase or text string; or, d) the source of the information (ALA 1997). See Bastian (1997) and ACLU (1998) for further details.

7. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

8. See Ascheim (1953) for the differences between selection and censorship.

9. See for the decision in Reno v. ACLU in its entirety.

10. Banks (1998), p. 54.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. The mini-biography only reveals that "Michael A. Banks, a resident of Oxford, OH, is the author of some 40 books, including The Internet Unplugged ... His other recent title, Web Psychos, Stalkers, and Pranksters: How to Protect Yourself in Cyberspace (The Coriolis Group, 1997), focuses on Internet crimes and privacy threats, and how to protect against them ..." (p. 54).

14. Maxymuk (1998), p. 188.

15. Ibid.

16. Willems (1998), p. 56.

17. Johnson (1998), p. 13.

18. See Stan (1995), Appendix A for the full text of the Minneapolis ordinance.

19. See Appendix D of Rimm (1995b) for the list of locations.

20. Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), offers a very plausible theory as to how the other three otherwise intelligent, scholarly, and professionally reputable contributors were duped into endorsing a methodologically unsound study as Rimm (1995a).

21. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1957.

22. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1940.

23. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1941.

24. Willems (1998), p. 56; see for details on The Internet Filter Assessment Project.

25. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1956.

26. Branscomb (1995b), pp. 1942-1943.

27. Smoking exemplifies this struggle. Cigarette manufacturers continue to exist despite research findings on the deleterious effects of smoking, government warnings of the health hazards resulting from such habit, and huge law suits brought by smokers against the cigarette industry.

28. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1943 & p. 1946.

29. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1957.

30. Branscomb (1995b), p. 1956.

31. MacKinnon (1995), p. 1962.

32. MacKinnon (1995), pp. 1962-1963.

33. MacKinnon (1995), p. 1963.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. MacKinnon (1995), p. 1967.

37. Meyer (1995), pp. 2004-2005.

38. Meyer (1995), p. 1974.

39. Meyer (1995), p. 1975.

40. Meyer (1995), p. 2007.

41. Meyer (1995), p. 2008.

42. Ibid.

43. Elmer-Dewitt (1995); see Godwin (1995b) for details on the circumstances that led to the publication of "On a Screen Near You."

44. Hoffman and Novak (1995b).

45. Hoffman and Novak (1995c). Project 2000 was created by Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak to provide a forum for a constructive, honest, and open critique process of the Rimm study. As the authors stated:

"We do not debate the existence of pornography in "cyberspace," though we do dispute the findings presented in the Rimm study and the Time article concerning the extent and consumption on the Internet... . The critically important national debate over First Amendment rights and restrictions on the Internet and other emerging media requires facts and informed opinion, not hysteria [based on flawed research]." (Hoffman and Novak, 1995e).

46. Hoffman and Novak (1995c).

47. According to Lisa Sigel and Geoffrey Sauer:

"There are ... interpretive problems in the study mostly because Rimm is an engineer attempting to look at social issues. He takes an engineer's approach where you identify a problem, find an approach, apply it, and fix it. Social issues like pornography require a great deal of nuance or as he calls them "subjective approaches" because the world, especially the world of fantasy, does not fit into little boxes. ... Rather than understand pornography on its own terms as a complicated phenomenon, he takes all things that look alike and lumps them together." (Sigel and Sauer, 1995)

48. See Thomas (1995b) for details on the study's ethical violations.

49. David G. Post can also vouch for the embargo besides Mike Godwin, Donna Hoffman, and Thomas Novak. He relates:

"As a member of the Georgetown University faculty with research interests in this area [i.e., the issues of cyberporn], I was approached in March, 1995, to help several of the student editors with questions that they had arising out of the study; they would not, however, show me a copy of the study itself, and they asserted that they were unable to do so because of a secrecy arrangement they had made with Mr. Rimm." (Post, 1995)

50. See Godwin (1995a).

51. In the Hotwired interview, Elmer-Dewitt was asked if Rimm's study was linked to some conservative group such as the Christian Coalition. The Time journalist said:

"No, there wasn't. Rimm - I didn't even ask him; he volunteered - said "we talked to just about everybody; the one group I didn't want to talk to was the Christian Coalition." He never had any contact with them. There's been a lot of speculation on The Well, that "geez, this must have been funded by the Christian Coalition; they must have given Ralph Reed early access to it." As near as I can tell, that's just the kind of crazy talk that goes on The Well."

Mike Godwin begs to differ. He maintains that there is strong evidence that the Christian Coalition and other right-wing antiporn activists had advance, detailed knowledge of the study and its likely impact. (Godwin, 1995a).

52. Lisa Z. Sigel is a doctoral candidate in Social History at CMU. Geoffrey Sauer is also a doctoral candidate at CMU, but in Cultural Theory.

53. See also Thomas (1995a).

54. See the "Specific Comments" section of Hoffman and Novak (1995a) for detailed examples of the flaws in the Rimm study. Also, see Rimm (1995a) for Rimm's response to Hoffman and Novak's critique of Elmer-Dewitt's article, and Hoffman and Novak (1995d) for Hoffman and Novak's reactions to Rimm's response to their critique.

55. Brian Reid is Director of Network Systems Laboratory at the Digital Equipment Corporation and hold a Ph. D. in Computer Science from Carnegie-Mellon University.

56. Reid has been measuring Usenet readership and analyzing Usenet content and publishing studies since April 1986. He has spent years refining the measurement techniques and the data processing algorithms (Reid, 1995).

57. To "read" a newsgroup means to have been presented with the opportunity to look at at least one message in it. Going through a newsgroup with the "n" key counts as reading it. For a news site, "user X reads group Y" means that user X's .newsrc file has marked at least one unexpired message in Y (Reid, 1995).

58. See Rimm (1995c) for Rimm's response to Reid's criticisms.

59. See McCullagh (1995) for examples of where the two studies converge and diverge.

60. Berger, Searles, and Cottle (1991), p. 51.

61. Stan (1995), pp. 279-280.

62. Grazia (1992), p. 587. See Berger, Searles, and Cottle (1991), pp. 34-40; and, McElroy (1995), pp. 87-91 for more information about radical feminism.

63. McElroy (1995), p. 97.

64. McElroy (1995), pp. 119-145.

65. Based on subscription and newsstand sales of eight magazines: Chic, Club, Gallery, Genesis, Hustler, Oui, Penthouse, and Playboy.

66. Based on American Rifleman, Field and Stream, Guns and Ammo, Sports Afield, and The American Hunter.

67. Berger, Searles, and Cottle (1991), pp. 31-49.

68. Brod (1987), p. 197.

69. Ibid.


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Editorial history

Paper received 12 June 2000; accepted 4 July 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Cyberporn: The Controversy by Joyce H-S Li
First Monday, volume 5, number 8 (August 2000),