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Nashville Scene Obscenity 2.0

The Communications Decency Act... again

By James Hanback Jr.

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  A mere week after they released the sexually explicit Kenneth Starr report, and on the same day that they released the videotape of President Clinton's grand jury testimony, U.S. legislators decided that the commercial side of the Internet is just too pornographic and "harmful to minors" not to be regulated.

The second Communications Decency Act (HR 3783, The Child Online Protection Act) would force commercial developers of online adult content to limit access to their sites via passwords, personal identification numbers (PINs), or credit card numbers. It has passed a U.S. House subcommittee.

Dubbed the CDA II by its opponents, the new act uses a more specific standard of what is and what is not pornography than its 1996 predecessor, which was passed by Congress but later struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The 1996 act, which set off a firestorm of criticism on the Net and provoked many Web-site developers to express their displeasure by placing a blue ribbon on their home pages, was so broadly worded that even sites dealing with topics like breast cancer could have been defined as pornographic and harmful to minors.

Proponents of CDA II say the measure is on more solid legal ground because it uses a 40-year-old "harmful to minors" standard that has already withstood legal scrutiny. According to this definition, "harmful to minors" is any image, article, recording, or other material that appeals to the prurient interests and "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

Of course, this begs a pretty big question: Who determines what holds serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors? Some might consider the photography in Playboy magazine artistic. Others call it pornographic because it appeals to the prurient interests of men.

This question is as old as the First Amendment itself, and it doesn't only relate to Internet content. In 1997, Barnes & Noble bookstores across the country were attacked by activists and law-enforcement officers alike for stocking a photography book that contained nude pictures of minors in non-sexual situations.

I once knew an art professor who displayed a color slide of the famous painting in which a young woman is lying nude and front-down on a sofa, peering out a window. Not only did he point out that this painting was considered an example of the trend toward realism in art, he also noted, "This painting is one that has inspired Playboy photographers for years."

In short, the difference between indecency and artistic value is often a very fine line: One person may see an image as art because of its creative use of light and shadow, while another may simply see it as smut because of the subject matter portrayed therein. Does our government truly believe it can regulate the totally subjective opinions of the millions of people occupying cyberspace?

On a local level, lawmakers determine what's pornographic and what's not based on "community standards": If a jury of 12 representatives from a specific location deems the material in question inappropriate for that area, then it is.

But who'll represent the Internet? On whom can lawmakers call to say, "Yes, this is indecent" or "No, I am not offended," and know that they have obtained a true representation of the general feelings of the wired populace of the world?

The only fair way to regulate pornographic material on the Internet is for parents to monitor their children's online time, and to use software to block those sites that parents deem inappropriate. Another idea mentioned earlier this year is the creation of a ".xxx" or a ".adult" domain and a requirement that sites geared toward adult prurient interests register in such a domain. This would make it easier for parents to block objectionable sites from their children.

The irony is that the Congress calling for regulation of Internet content is the same Congress that posted the very dicey Starr report on its own Web site. While commercial sites have displayed warnings about the graphic nature of the report, content developers at www.house.gov (the U.S. House of Representatives) said not a single word about it.

Perhaps the Bible said it best: "Physician, heal thyself."


Hacked off

Never let it be said that I won't eat crow. After my attack on hacking two weeks ago, when I reported the story of HFG (Hacking for Girlies) and their infiltration of the New York Times Web server, I received more than a few complaints from hackers and hacker-empathizers.

As several readers noted, I failed to point out that Kevin Mitnick, though imprisoned for his alleged crimes, has not received what amounts to a fair trial--one of the hacking community's major contentions. Mitnick reportedly broke into the home computer of one of the world's leading computer-security experts. The investigation and Mitnick's capture were chronicled in the book Takedown, which was cowritten by a New York Times writer and has been hotly protested by many hackers as a simple attempt to gain money and notoriety for its authors. A film version of the book is in the works.

Mitnick has subsequently been imprisoned without trial for longer than many rapists and murderers. But everyone, including hackers, has a right to due process.

Likewise, my August column about "Back Orifice," the program developed by Cult of the Dead Cow, used overly harsh terms to describe the hackers involved. Local hackers say that Microsoft has not taken seriously the threat that Back Orifice could pose to Windows security; this negligence, they suggest, simply proves that the company isn't interested in the safety of its customers.

Also, some people pointed out that the labeling of hackers as "cyber-terrorists" was unfair. Certainly, that wasn't a good descriptive term, if for no other reason than the fact that hacking doesn't necessarily amount to a terrorist act. A group of local hackers recently informed me that they do not break in and destroy other people's servers, but they do inform people of possible security problems when they encounter them. It is, they say, a community service.

Speaking of hacking, a recent report at http://www.cnn.com, claims people can break into your World Wide Web server through simple default CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts that come with the most popular Web server software. The recent hacking of the New York Times site-- http://www.nytimes.com. -- prompted CNN to discuss the matter with experts in computer security. According to the report, those default CGI scripts should be deleted and replaced with a knowledgeable Webmaster's own, more secure scripts.

Hackers are knowledgeable about the scripts that ship with common Web servers, and have found ways to get access to the server by feeding those scripts strings of long commands and overflowing their buffers. From there, they give themselves accounts on the victim servers and launch a "rootkit" to gain root access.

Once they have root access, hackers are not limited in what they can do to your Web server. The best protection, the CNN expert said, is simply not to use the default CGI scripts. Descriptions of the buffer overflow technique can also be found at http://www.antionline.com.

Apple's savior

Reports all over the Internet claim that the iMac--the cool, white-and-blue, Internet-friendly machine from Apple Computer Inc.--is not only attracting a new customer base from people who've never owned computers before, it's also getting a few PC converts. It's not the sleek new look of the machine that's bringing people over, according to Apple. It's the computer's simple installation and ease-of-use.

Mac fanatics should find some comfort in the fact that they're pulling a few people from the IBM-compatible ranks. Apple won't release full details on the success of the iMac until the end of the company's fiscal year, but by all accounts they claim the news will be good. Locally, the iMac appears to be selling well. And nationally, some computer stores are saying that they sell out of iMacs by the end of every week.

To reach James, e-mail him at james@nashscene.com.

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