s An Analysis of Arguments Against Censorship of Sexually Related Newsgroups on Usenet

An Analysis of Arguments Against Censorship of Sexually Related Newsgroups on Usenet

by Brian Zuzga
as part of the requirements for 6.095

Censorship -- The change in the access status of material, made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include: exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.

- American Library Association

Recently there has been a lot of debate on Usenet and the Internet in general about the censorship of certain sexually related newsgroups. This was probably spurred by the recent move by CMU to ban all of the alt.sex newsgroups. Most of this debate has generated more heat than light at this point, but there are a few underlying themes that are common to the arguments against censorship that bear further investigation. This paper may wander away from the focus of Usenet at times, but only to illustrate the ways that some other decisions are relevant to the issue at hand.

The Argument for Censorship

One can not argue against censorship in a total vacuum, so this paper will briefly introduce the arguements for censorship. This way the reader will understand the issues that the anti-censorship arguments are trying to address.

The simplest argument that can be constructed is that in the course of distributing sexually explicit materials, minors may accidently get the material and then the distributor would be held liable. All states in the United States (that the author is aware of) have laws against distributing "indecent" or "sexually explicit" material to minors. So, in this argument the information provider is just protecting themselves. (This is the argument that CMU makes.)

A more complicated argument that many information providers make is that they are paying for the resources to distribute Usenet news, and they therefore have the right to restrict the distribution of news to groups that are consistent with mission of their organization. University of Toronto, Scarborough College takes this argument to it's logical extreme by saying that their computer resources are not to be used for anything but academic purposes. (They don't even allow telnet to outside computers.)

The argument that Prodigy makes for restricting its users' freedom of speech is even more precarious. They feel that some kinds of speech are damaging and therefore restrict personal attacks on their forums. They sometimes call themselves "the Disney Channel of online services." In the process of enforcing these policies they have opened themselves up to a host of problems stemming from the editorial and legal nightmare of screening all those messages. Currently there are no Usenet news providers that have adopted a similar policy.

A much more sustainable argument for the limitation of newsgroups can be made on the basis of load shedding. The MIT EECS news server makes just such an argument. They do not distribute any binary newsgroups, including sexually oriented ones. The justification for this policy is purely a technical one, because their news server cannot support the tremendous load that binary files cause. This policy probably doesn't fall under the umbrella of censorship at all.

If one were to look at the Computers and Academic Freedom Archive , one would find a number of university policies that prohibit the transmission or storage of pornographic material. However, a number of them do not provide any rationale.

Arguments Against Censorship

When one reads arguments against censorship on the Internet (or censorship in general), they generally fall into a very limited set of categories. It isn't hard to take whole papers and put them into one of the following categories, while some others have pieces that fall into two or three categories.

Freedom of Speech in Cyberspace

The first style of argument against censorship of sexually related newsgroups proceeds on the path of freedom of expression. The first amendment has always protected public speaking and print media, so it's only natural that it be extended to electronic networks. It is widely held that this is the most important result of the bill of rights, so if more and more of our interactions take place on-line we should be guaranteed the same rights in cyberspace that we enjoy in normal space.

This argument also goes on to describe how our rights on electronic media have already been violated. The FCC already places heavy-handed restrictions on the use of the radio spectrum. The original justification for this restriction was the rationing of a scarce resource. However, with time this technical problem was overcome, but the legal one was not. (This is often cited as one of the biggest problems in regulating the Internet, pinning strict regulations to an evolving technology.) So, justifying the censorship of newsgroups because television censors it's content isn't a valid argument.

There is no place in our society for efforts... to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents...

-American Library Association, The Freedom to Read

[A very good version of this argument can be found in The Electronic Frontier and the Bill of Rights.]

...but it's not illegal.

Another style of argument is that censorship puts one in an even a more difficult legal situation. While knowingly giving indecent material to minors is definitely illegal, unknowingly giving material that isn't screened but turns out to be indecent isn't illegal. One would be hard pressed to guarantee that any source of material is completely safe for minors. So, one can provides a service with no guarantees and have no obligations to uphold, but as soon as you guarantee something about a service then you are bound to it.

They can't. Nor, from a legal perspective, even try. Once an organization takes a position whereby it seeks to "protect" its customers, it becomes liable for infractions.

-An Anonymous AOL User, Young Gay Chat Rooms on America Online

The most common argument for censorship is that the material is legally obscene. However, most Usenet newsgroups wouldn't succeed in passing the Miller test for obscenity (Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)), since the work has to be viewed as a whole. There is no precedent for prosecuting someone for just distributing sexually explicit material, because according to the modified Miller doctrine adopted by many states the material also has to be "harmful to adolescents."

The way that the law stands currently, a library cannot be held responsible for making sexually explicit material available. In particular, the Pennsylvania statute states that a party can only be held liable for the content of material "...which is reasonably susceptible of examination by the defendant." Just as a library or book store cannot be expected to examine all of it's books, a Usenet news provider cannot be expected to examine all of it's postings. If anything, the law makes the originator of a posting liable for the content, not the distributor.

So, in summary this argument is the counter-argument to the idea that censorship just makes one less liable. This is untrue, it opens the door to even further liability.

[This argument is mostly taken from The ACLU's letter to Dr. Mehrabian, President of CMU ]

The Material Really is Valuable

Thirdly, there is the style of argument that attacks the heart of the issue of sexually related material. That is, this material is valuable and useful to a great many people and goes beyond just providing erotica for the masses. People say that this is just the product of perverts and has no socially redeeming qualities, but that is just untrue. One part of the Miller test for obscenity is that the work have no literary, artistic, scientific, or political value and these newsgroups do have value to its users. (Although it may not have as much value to everyone.)

For the most part, when the popular media wants to describe the sexually explicit material that is available on the net they use very unusual pictures and pedophiles soliciting minors as examples (the fringe element). They rarely show the safer sex information that is available or the valuable community offered to sexual minorities (ex. alt.sex.motss). In the quest for higher ratings and greater sensationalism, they seem to emphasize the negative rather than the positive. This just underscores the public's lack of understanding of the true nature of the medium. They ignore the political discourse, they ignore the literary works of people trying to express their deepest and most difficult feelings, they ignore the safety information, they ignore it all in favor of watching the few people who are just sitting around "getting their jollies" off it all.

Many also argue that the images and discussion available on sexually related newsgroups is degrading to women. However, that need not be the case and is not necessarily the case currently. It takes a profound lack of imagination to argue that gay male erotica is degrading to women as Andrea Dworkin argues. It's this same lack of imagination that can't see beyond the few narrow-minded individuals, and see this discussion as an opportunity for growing beyond it all. Some suggest that the censorship of sexually explicit material is even more harmful to women, because it denies their sexuality and prevents them from discussing it. If anything, open discussion, not censorship, is the only thing that will cause society to grow beyond it's current difficulties in sexual politics. Otherwise the same tired views will just persist forever.

The suppression of words and images -- especially sexual ones -- has traditionally been used to "protect" women from information about sexuality and reproductive choices, and to silence women's voices.

- Rachel Hickerson, Exec. Director of Feminists for Free Expression (excerpted from letter to President of CMU )

[adopted with great help from the Conversio Virium Home Page and its author.]

It's Impossible to Stem the Flow

Finally, there is the Cypherpunk style of argument: it is hopeless to attempt to control the flow of information in the first place. Governments may place restrictions on information providers. Information providers may turn off newsgroups and restrict access to material on the Internet. However, the nature of the Internet is to distribute information freely and getting around these barriers is only a small technical obstacle.

If the goal of policy makers it to prevent people from trading material that is obscene beyond any shadow of a doubt in the United States, then they would have a tough time accomplishing that goal. One might be able to restrict some newsgroups, but the people will start using others and use mailing lists to get around gaps. With the international flow of information and the amount of news past 200MB a day (from Dec 1994 UUNET statistics on news.lists), it would be very hard to screen out what was allowable and what wasn't allowable here in the U.S.

Even if the authorities were able to "clean up" Usenet, they still wouldn't have succeeded in their goal of stemming the flow of obscene material. With encryption and anonymous re-mailers abound, a quick black market for this information would form and business would continue as usual. No matter how hard they try, they won't be able to stem the flow of information. Nothing short of a total police state would be able to accomplish their impossible goals, so why try? Why not live with it instead?

[An exhaustive version of this argument can be found in Tim May's Cyphernomicon ]


These arguments against censorship are basically orthogonal and don't have many common threads running between them. Oddly enough, most opinion statements don't include a full elaboration of all of the arguments, they generally stick to one or two. More interestingly, the arguments also seem to cluster themselves according to community. This bears further investigation.

The first argument is almost a knee-jerk constitutional law argument. It isn't very legally sophisticated, and almost any educated American can make it. This argument is very much espoused by people interested in civil liberties. Tim May once said that the Internet was built by libertarians, and this attitude is pervasive throughout the culture of the net currently. It's not uncommon for these people to squeak a constitutional argument every time their tails are stepped upon.

The second argument is quite legally sophisticated and is usually accompanied by a set of references. This style of argument is generally made by someone with legal experience and it tries to present, in a rational fashion, how to minimize one's legal risks. The ACLU often makes this style of argument, since they are made up of lawyers. They often point out the legal interpretation of the case, and are blind to the ethical issues of that particular case. (As indicated by there recent defense of free speech of a KKK member.) There is definitely a great deal of value in an approach to public policy along these lines.

The third argument is generally made by the people who are directly affected by the situation. It really attacks the heart of the matter at an emotional level. They feel that when someone tries to censor this material, someone must feel that it is not useful and is in fact harmful. The root of their debate is that this material is useful, even essential, to their lives and only that 1% fringe element is actually doing any harm. They insist that this material is valuable because it is valuable to them and many others like them, and the fact that it doesn't appeal to a vast majority is irrelevant. The good that this material does well outweighs any harm.

The fourth argument is one that is generally only found with someone who has experience with the Cypherpunks and their point of view. It is very much along the lines of practicality, utility, and inevitability. Their view is unique in that it doesn't make any judgments on free speech, legality, or the value of the content. The Cypherpunks completely evade the issue of ethics. They just say that this is what is going to happen, and you might as well make it easier on yourself. It is the argument of a realist.


All in all, it is sad that these arguments are as orthogonal as they are. They show that there are clearly many different groups fighting against censorship for many different reasons. It also shows how little these groups are really cooperating. It demonstrates the great schisms between the groups.

The libertarians won't ally with the ACLU, because they feel that the ACLU doesn't attack handgun control enough. People in other camps may make snide remarks about the life styles of the people on the alt.sex.* groups. There's often a great internal war between the groups about who really constitutes the mainstream and what really should be allowed. (Strangely enough some fringe groups have a harder time getting along with fringe groups of similar views than ones of radically different views.)

With so many people fighting censorship, one would imagine they could win by sheer numbers. There are many good supporting arguments against censorship, and that is just all the more ammunition. The great disappointment may be that these groups are so divided that they will end up losing their battle.


Brian Zuzga <boogles@martigny.ai.mit.edu>