I ran across this classic, infamous Time Magazine cover the other day and was blown away that it's now 13-years-old. The story is here.
Besides making me think about my own age and what I was doing when I first saw it back in 1995, I had a few thoughts on it (that aren't all necessarily related)...
--As you may know, the story was riddled with faulty research, alleged bad journalism and a lot of fear mongering presumptions. In a nutshell, one Carnegie Mellon researcher did a study that found that 83.5 percent (!) of online images were pornographic and published his findings in a non-peer-reviewed law journal. (The punch-line was that the source of the images were private BBS services and not the public Internet). The researcher and the law journal supposedly gave Time the journal article and select pieces of the results under the condition that Time couldn't see the full study before it went to press. This is obviously completely insane and the law journal says it wasn't true. But, regardless, Time ran with the piece nonetheless and wrote (their caps, not mine): "What the Carnegie Mellon researchers discovered was: THERE'S AN AWFUL LOT OF PORN ONLINE."
--At the time of the piece, the Communications Decency Act train was warming up in the station and the Time story gave it a head of steam. In an interesting piece of current research, Alice Marwick writes about "technopanics" and uses the Time piece and the resulting legislative actions as exhibit A...
The day after the Time issue was published, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley directly referred to the Rimm study on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Congress was in the process of debating the Communications Decency Act (CDA), an amendment to the Telecommunications Act which made it a federal crime to make pornographic materials available online where children could view them. Grassley had read the Time magazine cover story and gave a strident speech to Congress the day after it was published:
Eighty–three point five percent of all computerized photographs available on the Internet are pornographic. Mr. President, I want to repeat that: 83.5 percent of the 900,000 images reviewed — these are all on the Internet — are pornographic, according to the Carnegie Mellon study. Now, of course, that does not mean that all of these images are illegal under the Constitution. But with so many graphic images available on computer networks, I believe Congress must act and do so in a constitutional manner to help parents who are under assault in this day and age. There is a flood of vile pornography, and we must act to stem this growing tide, because, in the words of Judge Robert Bork, it incites perverted minds.
--The CDA, of course, passed, was signed and then got struck down by the Supreme Court. It also launched the careers of about 1143 geek activists.
--As the "technopanic" piece notes, there is a direct corollary from the Web 1.0 cyberporn freak-out and the social networking predator wig-out. Adam Theirer and others spit in the wind for a long time about how faulty research was on social networks and the risks of sexual predators. Still, despite a recent trend toward more reasonable data, a whole host of bad legislation has been introduced since 2006 to cure the Internet of its social networking evils. DOPA was the classic, but there have also been all sorts of attempts at the state level for age-verification mandates (which have been uniformly scuttled).
--But, think that in these modern ubiquitous media days that a single story can't have an impact on a policymaker? Think again. It certainly wasn't as specious as the Time piece, but consider one New York Times story written by the generally very good Brad Stone last summer. Headlined "New Scrutiny for Facebook Over Predators". In it, the Connecticut AG says that he is investigating "three or more" cases of convicted sex offenders on Facebook. Lightweight claim? Fair point? You make the call.
Regardless, this news is supported by an anonymous email to the Times that was received by a received from a “concerned parent” who had “posed” as a 15-year-old on Facebook and received solicitations from adults. Apparently, this fake 15-year-old signed up for groups that included ““addicted to masturbation ... and you know if you are!”, “Facebook Swingers” and “I’m Curious About Incest.” The fake user subsequently received propositions from adults who could see her profile photo and message her via the group. A couple of the men had naked photos of themselves on their profile. (Note that Facebook has since fixed this issue on several levels).
In response to the Times story, one blogger remarked: "What?! Adults posing as teenagers looking for "random play" and joining 36 sex groups get propositioned? The system is totally broken!"
Regardless, I don't think it was a complete coincidence that less than two months after the piece, the New York Attorney General announced the results of a “weeks long” investigation into the site that mirrored what were covered in the story and started a public crusade against Facebook. This was very quickly concluded by an agreement between the AG and the company. Still, damage done.
--Is the social networking technopanic too 2006-07 for you? Okay, how about this USA Today piece that came out last week that ledes with: "Sexual predators are using gaming consoles such as the Wii, PlayStation and Xbox to meet children online."
Look for related legislation soon.
--Another interesting bit from the initial reaction to the cyberporn story, was the recalling of how this could have been the first major instance of "crowdsourcing" to find the facts necessary to create a significant reaction (in this case from a major weekly newsmagazine). The seminal early-Internet geek-zone, the Well, is given credit in a 1995 story:
In the hours and days after the Time story was published, something extraordinary happened in the Media conference on the Well, the Sausalito-based computer conferencing system: Scholars, reporters and activists examined the Time story and the Carnegie Mellon University study it was based upon and took them apart, line by line, statistic by statistic, in full public view.
The Well is a popular hangout for journalists and journalism junkies; the author of the Time story, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, is among its regulars. Over the past 10 days, anyone who pulled up a virtual chair on the Well could follow all the principals in this controversy as they thrashed out their disagreements.
Initially, a Time editor (awesomely) only promised a "letter to the editor" to the dissenters. But, as the reaction dragged on, Time eventually ran what was supposedly a "qualified" retraction. (I can't find it).
--Of course, the Well could also be seen as a pre-cursor to the current circle jerk of tech bloggers who constantly affirm each other in their own special enlightened world. [UPDATE: Check out Brock Meeks' erudite refutation of this point in the comments.]
"Frankly, I think there's a good story to be done, probably by me, in what's gone on in The Well. This might be self-serving, but it feels like poor Marty Rimm is being lynched there. He's not getting a fair trial; his study's not getting a fair trial. Mike Godwin has organized an attack, and there are precious few voices that are not already prejudiced to one side."
I't's hard to have a lot of sympathy for either the reporter or researcher in this case, but after seeing When Communities Attack many, many times in the last 13 years now, it's also hard not to hold out a bit of skepticism for prevailing wisdom promulgated by those who effusively agree with each other and collectively reject dissenting perspectives.
In a way, this whole episode was quite prescient -- both for better and for worse.