Web Wandering


Michael Newcomb

Continuing to Web Wander as Rome burns, this month's column describes the USENET news system, at once the most useful and the most useless part of the Internet. USENET allows literally anyone with a Net connection to publish messages that can be seen in every corner of the world. It caters to every need and taste, from the sublimely artistic to the grossly prurient, from the sacred to the profane, from the altruistic to the crassly commercial.


Internet Tips

I'll start off with a couple of quick Internet tips.


Internet Mail and the BCS BBS

It's a little-known fact, but you can send and receive Internet mail using the BCS bulletin board (when it's working!). To send a message to someone who uses the BCS bulletin board, you use an address of the form "first name.last name@tbbs.bcs.org". For example, if you wanted to send mail to me, you would use the address "michael.newcomb@tbbs.bcs.org". Notice the period between first and last names.

It's very important that you use the correct address, that is, the first and last names actually entered by the person you are trying to reach. For example, if you send mail to "Richard Nixon" but the late unindicted co-conspirator happened to create his BBS account as "Dick Nixon," your mail will not be delivered.

Sending Internet mail from the BBS is similarly straightforward. You simply "leave" the message to the appropriate Internet mail address, e.g.:

Leaving an Internet Mail message on the BCS BBS

The BBS will say that the user is not on the system, and ask you if you want to send the message anyway. This is meant to protect you from misspelled names (for example); in this case, you do want to send the message anyway.


Enclosures and the BBS

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Internet mail is only able to transport ASCII text. If you need to transmit a binary file, it needs to be encoded first. This encoding transforms the binary data into printable ASCII characters that can be safely transmitted over the Net mail system.

The BCS BBS allows you to attach files to messages (the 'E' option). Files attached in this way will be correctly encoded before transmission. The BBS uses the UU encoding scheme, which will be correctly interpreted by any popular Net mail client.

The reverse transaction isn't so pretty. In my experience, the BBS will correctly decode binary attachments only if they are sent using the UU encoding scheme. If another scheme is used, it dumps the encoded mess into the message body.

It isn't hard to tell when you've been sent an encoded file; you will see a whole bunch of lines of what appears to be gibberish. On closer inspection, you'll notice that most of the lines are exactly the same length. You may also see lines indicating the original name and type of the encoded file.

In this case, you'll need to download the message to your PC and run it through a decoding utility. Later in this article (in the section "Binary Files in the Newsgroups") there is more information about where to get these programs and how to use them.

It's also worth noting that the BCS board only allows a single attachment to each message. Internet mail theoretically allows you to attach any number of files to a message.


Internet Mail and the BCS Mac Board

Sending Internet Mail from the Mac BBS I know, I know, this is PC Report and we're not supposed to talk about That Other Computer, but the BCS Mac group runs its own rather nice bulletin board. The Mac board uses SoftArc's First Class server software, so it is best used with the First Class graphical client; you can download this client directly from the Mac board or from a number of other sources (see below).

If you want to send Internet mail to someone on the BCS Mac BBS, you can figure out the correct address from their name, much as on the IBM board. For example, to send me mail on the Mac board, you would send to "Michael_Newcomb@bcsmac.org". Notice that the Mac board uses an underscore instead of a period between first and last names.

The Mac board is smarter than the BCS board when it comes to matching names, but it still helps to know the exact name the recipient created his account under.

Sending mail from the Mac board to the Internet is very simple. When you create a message, simply type the destination address in the "to" field as usual, then add a comma and the word "internet." For example, you could send me mail by filling in the "to" address as "pcreport@miken.com,internet".

Enclosing files is very easy on the Mac board. The "File / Attach File..." command allows you to upload one or more files to be enclosed with a message. They will automatically be properly encoded and transmitted.

If someone sends an encoded file to you on the Mac board, it may or may not be decoded properly. The Mac board has no problems with UU encoding (the most popular method currently in use), or BinHex encoding (a popular Macintosh format), but it is not as good with some other encoding formats. If all else fails, you can still download the message to your PC and decode it manually.



SoftArc, manufacturer of the First Class bulletin board software, has a home page at www.softarc.com. You can download the latest Windows and Macintosh First Class clients from this site.


BBS Net Mail Notes

It's important to be aware that using bulletin boards to send and receive Net mail is not quite the same as using a real Net mail server. First of all, a message sent from a BBS will generally take much longer to arrive than one sent using a traditional Internet SMTP host.

Most bulletin boards will wait to collect a number of Internet-bound messages before actually transmitting them. They do this because continuous direct connection to the Internet can be expensive; it's cheaper to collect up batches of Net-related work and then dial up the host.

The same applies to incoming messages. Many bulletin boards collect their Net mail on a periodic basis, for example once per hour.

While BBSes are fine for exchanging simple ASCII text messages with friends or colleagues on the Net, they generally do less well with binary files. I have had problems with both the Mac and PC boards formatting attached binary files incorrectly, making them impossible to decode at the receiving end. If you intend to have a lot of Net mail correspondence, it's probably better to obtain a "real" account with a traditional Internet provider.


Sending Me Mail

I am attempting to limit the number of mailboxes that I have to empty. With that in mind, please send any comments or other e-mail to my Net mailbox on TIAC, to wit, "pcreport@miken.com". I am currently forwarding my previous main mailbox, "miken@pipeline.com", but I intend to close that down eventually.

In keeping with the theme of this section, I rarely if ever check my mail on the Mac or PC boards; if you want to reach me, the best way is on TIAC.


HyperTerminal PE

When Microsoft shipped Windows 95, it included a simple (some might go so far as to say "lame") terminal program called HyperTerminal. Licensed from Hilgraeve, makers of the popular communications program HyperAccess, HyperTerminal was intended to provide very basic capabilities along the lines of the original Windows Terminal applet. I suspect that Microsoft assumed HyperTerminal would tide people over until Win95 versions of popular communications programs became available.

For communications applications, Windows 95 represents a massive leap forward, as all the modem-selection and call-handling functionality needed for data calls is built into the operating system. Nevertheless, Win95 communications programs have been slow to appear, Qmodem Pro being about the only well-known product available in a Windows 95 version at press time.

Consequently, you are stuck using either HyperTerminal or a 16-bit communications program like HyperAccess. Unfortunately, neither option is terribly attractive, especially as some Windows 3.x communications apps have serious problems under Windows 95.

Out of the goodness of their hearts, Hilgraeve has made available an upgraded version of HyperTerminal called HyperTerminal Private Edition. This new version includes a large number of fixes and several new features, including automatic re-dial of busy numbers and resumption of partial Zmodem file transfers.

You can visit Hilgraeve's home page at www.hilgraeve.com. To get HyperAccess Private Edition, you can be nice and fill out the user information form at www.hilgraeve.com/haf.html or cut to the chase and just download ftp://www.hilgraeve.com/pub/vendor/hilgraeve/htpe1.zip.



From the ads and the coverage in the mainstream media, you might think that the World Wide Web is all there is to the Internet. It's really only the beginning. Though it doesn't get much coverage in the press, USENET is probably the most practically useful part of the Net after e-mail.



USENET is a collection of discussion forums. These forums are also often called "news" or "the newsgroups" because the mechanism behind USENET was once used solely to distribute operating system news and patches.

Nothing related to the Internet ever seems to keep the function for which it was originally designed; USENET has grown into an enormous, ever-changing virtual community that spans nearly every corner of the earth.

It's been said that our constitutional freedom of the press guarantees freedom to anyone who owns a press. USENET has become the ultimate in democracy: a printing press available to anyone who can connect to the Internet. Unlike Web pages, which require considerable knowledge and resources to implement, posting to a newsgroup is simple. Anyone who can type an e-mail message can post to a USENET forum, and everyone in the forum is equal.


How It Works

The operation of a USENET forum (or "group") is very simple. The cycle begins when someone writes a message and posts it in the group. Using something akin to the shampoo commercial model ("I told two friends, and they told two friends, ..."), the message will bounce from host to host until it reaches every corner of the Internet's world.

As the message travels, anyone who is watching the forum can read it and reply. The replies are replicated around the Net just as the original message was. As new messages arrive, the oldest messages "roll off" the top of the group and are deleted.

It's worth noting that this replication process is anything but instantaneous. Posts can take hours or days to travel the full length of the Internet. Accordingly, you may receive replies to a message you posted quite some time after the message was sent. It may take several hours for your posts to appear even on your own provider's news system, since news processing and transmission are often deferred to low usage periods.

There are literally thousands of forums on the USENET system, so many that it's pointless to even try to describe them. Suffice it to say that no matter what you want, or what you want to say, there's probably a newsgroup devoted to it.


The Basics

The USENET groups are organized into a structure very similar to directories on a hard disk. In fact, for many years, the name of each group mapped directly to a directory name on the host system. These directories contained the forum messages as simple text files.



All groups belong first to a hierarchy, the USENET equivalent of what a biologist would call a phylum. There are six "classic" hierarchies: soc (social issues), rec (recreation), comp (computer related), news (relating to the USENET system itself), sci (science), and alt (just about anything). In addition to these, some systems carry other hierarchies, in particular: clari (a commercial news and information service), bionet (biology-related groups), bitnet (mailing list echoes), biz (business), misc (a tamer version of alt), and talk (what it says).

The actual selection of newsgroups you will be able to access depends on your Internet provider. As the Net has become more popular, dozens of new hierarchies have sprung up. Nearly all providers carry the "classics," though some eschew the alt hierarchy either because of the controversial groups it contains (most of the sex-related groups are in alt), or because of the large bandwidth required by this hierarchy (currently 40MB or more per day for the pornographic groups alone). There are now hierarchies for countries (uk and fr [France], among many others), states, universities (harvard), and other things.

Your provider can elect to carry any or all of the hierarchies. The clari hierarchy is a special case because it is commercial: carrying clari requires the provider to pay a licensing fee.

Once a provider is licensed for clari, every one of his customers has access to high-quality world and regional news, plus features (Joe-Bob Briggs' Drive In!), columns, sports scores, and so on. It's worth noting that the clari hierarchy is "read-only;" you can't post your own messages to it.

The comp hierarchy is of special interest to computer users; it is an unrivalled source of information and support for nearly any kind of computer problem.



The hierarchy defines the "genre" of the groups it contains. For example, there's a group called rec.collecting. Appropriately, it's part of the rec (recreation) hierarchy, and it serves people who collect things as a hobby. In addition to the collecting group, there are several subgroups, including:


As you can see, it's usually very easy to figure out what the focus of a given newsgroup is. The way the newsgroups are organized also makes it fairly straightforward to find groups you're interested in.

New groups are constantly being added (by a remarkably democratic process), so it's definitely worth keeping your eyes open for new groups that might interest you.



The first time your USENET client (of which more anon) connects, it will download the complete list of hierarchies and newsgroups carried by your provider. This can take quite a while; some providers offer more than 10,000 groups.

Unless you already know the names of the groups you want to look at, there's really no substitute for browsing through the full list. It's actually kind of fun to do this, if for no other reason than to see some of the silly things people are willing to waste time talking about. Fortunately, most news clients will let you do this off-line so you don't burn up your connect time.

Once you have found a group you are interested in, tell your news client to "subscribe" to the group in question. The next time the client connects to the host system, it will retrieve all the "headers" in the group that you haven't already seen (all of them, the first time).

"Header" is the shorthand term for summary information about a message. The header includes the message's subject, the poster's name and e-mail address, the time and date the message was originally posted, and the length of the message.

Having seen the headers, you can decide which messages you want to actually read. You'll find that the signal-to-noise ratio in most forums is very low: no matter how interested you are in a group's topic, there will always be lots of stuff going on that you don't care about.

When you see a header that interests you, you can elect to read the full message, and reply to it if desired. If this isn't sinking in, don't worry, I'll go through a concrete example below.

That's the USENET process in a nutshell: subscribe to groups, read headers, read messages, post replies, and post new messages.


Message Format

The rules for USENET posts are essentially the same as those for Internet e-mail. In fact, many "all in one" Internet packages use the same editor for mail and news, with the "destination" line accepting either a newsgroup name or an e-mail address.

Like Net mail, USENET posts can contain only printable ASCII characters. Lines will automatically be wrapped at a set width, so carefully formatting your posts is probably pointless.

The most important thing in your message is the subject line. People will use this to decide whether or not they want to read your post. Accordingly, your message subject line can never be too descriptive.

If you are replying to a message, it's a good idea to quote a few lines from the original message so people will be able to follow the "conversation." Convention says that quoted lines are preceded by greater than signs (>).

When you decide to reply to a post, most news clients will automatically copy the entire original message into your reply as a quote. To save bandwidth (and time for those who read your post), you should edit down the quoted portion to the minimum needed to show what you're replying to. It's a classic "newbie" mistake to include the entire original message with your one-line addition at the bottom.

It's worth noting that you don't have to reply in the newsgroup. If you would like to send a private reply directly to the person that posted a particular message, use your news client's "reply via e-mail" command. This will send an Internet mail message to the e-mail address found in the original message.


Binary Files in the Newsgroups

As with Net mail, it's not possible to directly post binary files on the newsgroups. Binaries must be encoded before they can be posted, and they must be decoded to be useful.

Newsgroups add an additional complication that doesn't affect e-mail: some host systems limit the length of individual newsgroup messages. While the limits are generally far too high to affect ordinary text messages, encoded binary files can produce messages that are tens of thousands of lines long.

As a result, many USENET binary posts are broken down into multiple messages. By convention, most people limit their binary message segments to 1,000 lines (about 64K) or less each, so a file that encodes to 5,000 lines would have five parts. Again by convention, such multi-part messages have a "segment identifier" on the subject line, e.g., (0/5), (1/5), (2/5), and so on. The "zeroth" part is generally a detailed description of what is in the file.

Decoding these multi-part encoded files can be a real chore, especially since there are three major encoding formats (MIME, UU, and BinHex), each of which has several variants. Good news clients like Forté Agent have built-in decoders that can handle the vast majority of encoding schemes, but there are always some files that just won't decode properly.

Posting binary files is easier. Windows-based news clients will generally automatically encode and segment binary posts as needed.

Should you need or want to encode or decode binaries outside your news client, there are a number of good utilities available. For Windows, my favorites are WinCode (freeware) and ESS-Code (shareware). You can obtain these from an on-line service or locate them on the Net using the Virtual Shareware Library (www.shareware.com, search for "MIME").

WinCode, for example, can automatically reorder the segments of a multi-part file. It will automatically encode or decode files dragged onto its window from the Explorer. ESS-Code has a remarkably fast encoding engine and is available in a 32-bit Windows 95 version.


Binary Warning!

If you spend much time in the newsgroups, you will occasionally notice binary files that claim to be utility programs or other useful executables.

Don't retrieve them. Just don't. It's that simple.

The USENET groups are an area of near-complete anarchy. Nobody is in charge, and there's absolutely nothing to prevent malicious hackers from posting destructive software on the newsgroups, especially in hierarchies like alt.

The small chance that you'll get something useful out of a program posted to a newsgroup is just not worth the far larger risk that you'll get a vicious computer virus or a program that damages your system. The newsgroups are probably the best place in the world to catch a new virus unknown to your anti-virus software.

Don't be some hacker's dupe! If you need software from the Net, download it from a trustworthy ftp archive or web page.

Be aware that news clients like Forté Agent have a "Launch Binary Attachments" command that will download an executable and start it running automatically. Make sure you don't use this command accidentally around executable posts.

That said, there are plenty of worthwhile things to decode on the newsgroups. The most popular are sounds (usually from cartoons, TV shows, and movies) and pictures (smutty or otherwise). In fact, there are a whole series of newsgroups (the alt.binaries.* section) devoted to things you can decode and use on your machine.

Pictures, sounds, and movies are harmless. They can't damage your system. The worst that can happen with a picture, sound, or movie is that it won't work.

I feel like a governess saying this, but you should obviously also avoid anything along the lines of "make $20,000 cash in a month." If it were really that simple, the person making the post wouldn't tell anybody. On TV, you have late-night no-money-down real estate infomercials; on USENET you have a thousand variations on the pyramid scheme.


Parental Advisory

When I mentioned pictures in the last section, I should have been more explicit. To put it another way, in some parts of USENET, the images couldn't be more explicit. There is an enormous amount of sexual material (especially images) found in the newsgroups, principally, but not exclusively, in the alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.* tree.

For this reason, I would never allow a young person to use the newsgroups unsupervised. There's simply no easy way to automatically screen out offensive material, at least in part because everybody's definition of "offensive" is different. For example, I would allow even a young child to see a photograph of Michelangelo's "David," but many people wouldn't.

In addition to the fairly obvious problem of X-rated posts, there are other issues to worry about. Since identity is hard to establish on the newsgroups, you really don't want your child posting messages without supervision; it's unlikely, but he or she could attract attention from a pedophile.

It's very easy to avoid sexual content, but it's harder to deal with other material that may be inappropriate, such as messages from hate groups. The newsgroups thrive on controversy; a message that an adult would laugh at might be hurtful to a young person.

You'll have to decide for yourself when your child is old enough to use the forums, and when he is old enough to go out there alone. Don't panic and shut your child out: it would be a tragedy to flatly deny him this amazing resource. Several children I know have become enthusiastic "e-mail pals" with faraway friends they first met in the forums, enriching their own lives and those of the kids they correspond with. Just use the Net wisely and teach your child to do the same.


News Clients

Netscape's News Client There are quite a number of commercial, shareware, and freeware USENET clients available. I use Forté Agent; a freeware "lite" version of this client, called Forté Free Agent, can be downloaded from Forté's Web page www.forteinc.com.

You may also find that your Web browser includes a news client. Netscape has been working hard on a news client to accompany Navigator, and other browsers may include USENET support by the time you read this.

If your browser includes a news client, it's worth trying it out before you go to the trouble of setting up a separate client. Navigator's client isn't bad; it's essentially a rip-off of Agent with some changes and enhancements. It's gotten a lot better since Netscape's first attempt at a USENET client.

Unfortunately, Navigator's news client is like the rest of Netscape's offerings: it has lots of great ideas marred by really spotty execution. I suppose that's inevitable when you're revving your entire product line every few weeks to add new features and stay ahead of the Big Bad Wolf. At this point, Netscape might be well advised to take a breather and fix the existing features instead of constantly jamming in new things.

To keep up with the latest in news clients, check in at:


News Client Setup

Forte Agent User Profile Regardless of which news client you use, there are certain pieces of information you will need to supply before you can begin. I will use Forté Agent's dialog boxes as an example, but other clients use much the same setup procedures.


Forte Agent System Profile Once you have supplied these pieces of information, you should be able to connect to your provider's news server and begin browsing the newsgroups.


Electronic Ethics Alert

At this point I will give you some information that could be misused. Of course, I am only telling you this so you can protect yourself; you wouldn't use something I told you for evil, now would you?

If you browse the newsgroups, you will quickly notice that many people post under obvious pseudonyms. This is possible because the identity information you supply when configuring your news client isn't checked. You can fill in the name and e-mail address fields with anything you want and the news client will still work fine.

This is one of the biggest roadblocks in the way of those who would attempt to censor the Internet. Just by changing two fields in a dialog box, you can alter your identity to sheild yourself or to impersonate someone else. It's virtually impossible to prosecute someone you can't identify, or someone who can reasonably claim he was impersonated.

It's vital to keep this information in mind when you're browsing USENET. I can remember being in one group where for a few days everyone posted pretending to be the same person. You cannot be sure who you are corresponding with in the newsgroups.

Forged identities are sometimes used to pull one of the nastiest dirty tricks in USENETdom: a prankster assumes the identity of someone he wants to harm, then posts the most inflammatory message he can think of into one of the more flame-raddled newsgroups. One well-known case involved a hacker who posted a staggeringly blasphemous message into a Christian newsgroup under a fraudulent user ID. The victim received so much e-mail that his provider's system shut down. Months later, thousands of vitriolic messages were still pouring in each week. The victim posted a message explaining that he had been impersonated, but the storm didn't let up. Even begging for forgiveness had no effect.

If you're considering falsifying your identity for fun and profit, I should warn you that the method described above is not completely impenetrable. A provider with sufficient motivation--a court order, for example--might be able to trace you via certain log files kept on the news host.

Nevertheless, though I won't go into detail here, someone with the right knowledge can forge a USENET message in a way that is completely untraceable. In fact, there is a program called JessePost now circulating on the Internet. Inspired by the pending anti-Net-pornography legislation now before Congress, JessePost automates the process of untraceably posting to a newsgroup. Messages generated by JessePost appear to originate from the office of Senator Exon, sponsor of the anti-pornography amendment.


Using Forté Agent

Forte Agent Main Screen Take a look at the sample Forté Agent screen above. You'll notice that there are three windows, the Group Window, the Thread Window, and the Message Window.


The Group Window

Agent's Group window allows you to peruse the available newsgroups, select a particular group to browse, and subscribe to groups. This windows has several modes: All Groups (the master group list), New Groups (groups added since your last visit), Subscribed Groups, and Folders (storage for retrieved messages). To change the current mode, click the Group Window's title bar. If one of the other windows is active, you'll need to click twice, once to make the Group Window active, and once to change modes.

The sample shows the All Groups mode. This mode shows every group offered by your provider. Groups that are new since your last visit will be marked with a sunburst icon. Groups that you have subscribed to will be marked with a tiny "newspaper" icon and a number denoting the number of headers currently loaded for the group in question.

If you double-click a group name, Agent will offer you a chance to sample 50 headers from the group (a good way to see what's going on in a group before you subscribe), download all the group's headers, or subscribe to the group.


The Thread Window

This window shows the message headers in approximately the order they were posted. Threads are "collapsed" into a single header; click the triangular "thread" icon to see the headers that make up the thread.

Though the thread view is probably the most useful, you can also elect to sort the headers by subject (click the "Subject" column heading) or by author (click the "Author" column heading).

To read a particular message, double-click its header in the Thread window. Agent will retrieve the message from the server and display it in the Message window.

If the message contains an encoded binary file, you can select the "File / Save Binary Attachments" command (or press <Ctrl> + <B>). Agent will automatically download the message and convert it back to the original binary form. If the binary has multiple segments, remember to highlight all the segments before starting the "Save attachments" command.

By default, decoded binary attachments are saved in the Agent directory, though you can specify an alternate directory in the "Group / Properties..." dialog box.

To post a reply to a message, highlight it in the Thread Window and select "Post / Follow-Up Usenet Message" or press <F>. Agent will open a window for your reply with the original message text automatically quoted for your convenience. Edit down the quoted text, add your comments, and click "Send Now" to post the reply.

You can post start a new thread by selecting the "Post / New Usenet Message" command (or press <N>). Agent also offers commands to send replies via E-mail.


Off-line Operation

Depending on your arrangements with your Internet provider, it may be profitable for you to use Agent's off-line mode. Off-line operation allows you to minimize the amount of time you spend connected to your provider.

The basic procedure for off-line operation is:


Agent Tips

Forté Agent has one obnoxious tendency: left unchecked, it will gradually absorb ever-increasing amounts of hard disk space. There are two things you can do to reverse this trend:


An Editorial

Since PC Report is winding down, and I have little left to lose, I can't end this article without at least a brief discussion of censorship and the Internet.


The Exon Amendment

As you are probably aware, Senator James Exon has sponsored an amendment to a telecommunications bill now before Congress. The Exon amendment would make it illegal to "knowingly transmit indecent material to minors." Violators would be punished with stiff fines and prison sentences.

From the information in this article alone, you can see that the Exon amendment is an exercise in futility. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge can conceal their identity and make "indecent" posts. You can also be sure that attempts at censorship will be viewed as a challenge by the thousands of hackers that live out on the Net; if the amendment becomes law, it will probably be at most a matter of hours before tools appear to shield people who want to be "indecent."

The Exon amendment might have some impact on smutty Web pages, because they have a tangible physical existence: they have to be hosted on a computer somewhere. USENET posts are different. Once you transmit a post to the newsgroups, you log out and vanish. The news hosts will reflect your message around the world without further intervention. How do you arrest someone who is only vulnerable for a few seconds? Someone whose name you can't prove?

The amendment will have absolutely no effect on dirty Web pages outside the U.S. And what happens if an American sets up an "indecent" page in another country, or routes his smutty USENET posts through a permissive country like Denmark?

If American Internet providers try to block out the typically "indecent" groups, pornographers will simply start posting into other "non-pornographic" groups, annoying and possibly shocking innocent bystanders.

Shall we shut down the USENET system, possibly the world's most important democratic information resource, just because somebody somewhere might be offended? Not injured, mind you, offended. Nobody has ever been physically damaged by a USENET post; it's simply not possible.

Shutting down USENET to stamp out pornography would be analogous to imprisoning everyone in America on the grounds that some Americans litter.

Actually, the providers are unlikely to try to censor or shut down the newsgroups. Lobbyists for the big on-line services won a key concession from Congress: providers aren't responsible for violations under the Exon amendment; only the creators of "indecent" materials are exposed to prosecution. Since censorship greatly offends most Net denizens, providers are likely to simply ignore the Exon amendment. In fact, they may legally be able to refuse to help law enforcement catch offenders; this point will likely be decided in court.

You will notice that I have placed the word "indecent" in quotation marks. I did this to point out that "indecent" has no accepted definition in law. Over the years, "obscene" has acquired a fairly solid legal meaning, but if anyone ever tries to enforce the Exon amendment, "indecent" will have to be defined through years of court battles. As a case in point, a San Francisco nudist's family snapshot might be a West Virginia preacher's pornography.

Given the volume of sexual material on the Net, Exon prosecutions are likely to become similar to speeding violations: if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you might get zapped. Expect lots of Exon cases launched from uptight, rural, Bible-belt jurisdictions and almost none from calmer coastal / urban jurisdictions. Expect endless Supreme Court battles over "jurisdiction shopping," third country involvement, the meaning of "indecent," the place of the First Amendment in the electronic community, and so on.

Since the Exon amendment is such a Pandora's box, I will be greatly surprised if it is ever enforced or successfully used in a prosecution. I don't really consider it a serious threat to the Internet, at least for the moment. It's just too legally dodgy, and too easy to circumvent.

The amendment is much more interesting as a gauge of the leadership--or lack of it--currently found in Washington. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of on-line pornography, the Exon amendment is unlikely to accomplish anything useful.

If you want free speech (even smut) on the Net, then there should be no Exon-like laws. If you really want to get rid of Internet porn, make providers legally responsible under the amendment, and prosecute them (not the people who post the smut) vigorously. I guarantee that Net porn would quickly become extinct as providers screen out everything even remotely controversial.

Looking at the amendment in this light, any legislator that votes for it is either willfully ignorant of how the Internet works or a full-frontal hypocrite. How did your elected representative vote? Ever wonder how many other laws were written by people who had absolutely no understanding of what they were doing?


The Simon Wiesenthal Center

The debate over the Exon amendment is really just another skirmish in a war that has raged in America since the Puritans. The participants are careful to cloak their arguments in words like "protecting America's children" and "protecting free speech," but the real fight is over whether or not sexually explicit material should be available. This battle flares up every time a new medium of transmission for sexual material arises. It happened with magazines, video tapes, cable television, and satellite television, so why not the Internet?

Anything involving sex brings out the worst in our politicians, an unfortunate fact that has grossly distorted a vital debate. What we are willing to tolerate on the Internet says a lot about us a culture, as does what we're willing to do to repress speech we don't want.

A more serious discussion of speech on the Net has arisen in response to a recent article published by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The author of the article proposed that Internet providers refuse to host Web pages created by certain types of organizations, much as a newspaper might refuse advertising from a neo-Nazi group.

Befitting the Center's purpose, the author concentrated specifically on racist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi groups. The larger question is whether or not offensive speech should be allowed on the Internet, who decides what is offensive, and how far we should go to stop what we deem offensive.

Denying web space to a hate group sounds like the mildest form of censorship. After all, nobody is suggesting that the hate group can't hold meetings or rallies, create and mail publications, or even wear T-shirts daubed with offensive slogans. "Banned" organizations would presumably still be able to post hateful messages in the USENET forums, maintain mailing lists for their members, and receive e-mail from interested individuals.

The Center took this position because it fears the Web as an organizing and recruitment tool for hate groups. The Internet excels as an incubator of virtual communities, building groups out of like-minded individuals who would otherwise be geographically too far apart to join together.

For the moment, most Internet providers are standing on free speech rights, saying in effect that banning offensive speech doesn't make it go away. They reason that the hate groups will find a way to communicate whether the Web is available to them or not, and that "banning" groups gives them the glamour of martyrs to organized persecution.

Laudable as I find the Wiesenthal Center's goals, I have to side with the "free speechers." The Founders knew what they were doing when they explicitly and unequivocally granted Americans the right of free speech, a right as important on the Internet as anywhere else.

The traditional arguments against censorship apply in this case. For example, who decides what groups are banned? The providers? There will always be a provider willing to host hate groups for the right price. The government? To paraphrase Tim Robbins, do you want a politician or bureaucrat who can't fix the pothole in front of your house to decide who gets a web page?

Where does it end? Many people find homosexuality immoral: should gays be allowed Web pages? How about a gay person whose web page makes no mention of sexuality? In other words, can a person be censored for who he is rather than what he says?

When do we cross the line from banning to permitting? How long will it be before you have to apply for a web page, promising that you won't address any of a laundry-list of issues?

Who gets to complain? If the Internet has taught me nothing else, I have at least learned that everything is offensive to somebody. Do we allow animal-rights groups to shut down scientific research pages that mention animal tests? Can atheists demand that religious pages be expunged? Can the PC Police ban pages that are too "Eurocentric?"

What'll be left once everything even remotely controversial is gone?

In the end, my argument against Net censorship--any censorship--rests on one point: I grant no one the right to decide what I can see, say, or think. We are supposed to be a society of equals. Censorship means that someone "better than me" decides what it's safe for me to think. No way, not ever.

What do you think?


PC Report Online

For the moment, PC Report continues to be available on the World Wide Web at www.miken.com. If you visit the site, you will be able to see the first results from our recent reader survey, including comments from BCS members. You can also take the survey itself online.


The Electronic Frontier Foundation

For more information on the war over Net Censorship, take a peek at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's home page, www.eff.org. Though hardly unbiased, the EFF keeps a close eye on all developments related to electronic ethics.


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