Let Online Services Decide Content

January 4, 1996

By Mark J. Grossman

Free speech advocates and civil libertarians, hold your horses.

CompuServe’s decision to ban sexually explicit material from its online service is about as much a case of censorship as this newspaper’s decision not to carry certain nationally syndicated columnists.

Last week, CompuServe announced that it had blocked worldwide access to more than 200 news groups in response to German authorities battling child pornography and other cyberporn. Practically speaking, CompuServe could not create a special case for its German customers. But there are other, more compelling reasons why CompuServe was justified in its decision. Simply put, information and entertainment providers — such as newspapers, television and radio stations — have the right to decide to carry, or not, certain programing content. And online programing services are no different.

The only real difference here is that the computer online phenomenon is a medium just beginning to be understood and being redefined almost daily. Sales of computers and subscriptions to online services are growing exponentially. Many of these services — CompuServe, America On Line and Prodigy — offer both proprietary programing and access to the public airwaves . . . the Internet.

Others, such as Panix, Pipeline and LINet, offer Internet access only, with no proprietary programing. What CompuServe is saying here is that it will be offering access to some — not all — of the programing available on the Internet. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Cable television companies have been making these choices for years. With hundreds of channels available by satellite, some proprietary and others public, local cable systems choose which ones to offer their subscribers. If there is programing that customers want that their cable system doesn’t offer, they can choose either not to subscribe or to obtain that type of programing from other sources, such as video rentals or, via satellite dish, the programing source itself.

The online world is no different, except that service providers will now need to establish who they are and what they offer. Providers such as CompuServe existed prior to the 1995 Internet and Worldwide Web explosion because they offer unique information and entertainment that can’t be found — or easily accessed — on the Internet.

If providers also choose to offer a limited menu of access to public Internet sites, they should have that right, as long as they inform new customers exactly what they do and do not offer. Internet-only providers will continue, as the television satellite-dish industry is doing, to provide “uncensored” access to all programing available.

Clearly, it’s irrelevant that CompuServe’s action was prompted by a German law that prohibits access to pornographic material. The fact is that the issue of access — or restriction — to pornographic programing has been hovering over the Internet world for some time, the same way it did during the cable-TV explosion of the ’70s. And when was the last time you heard someone complain that there’s not enough access to pornographic videos and television programing? If someone wants it, they find it.

Computing will go the same route. Like the television satellite-dish industry, Internet-only providers will continue to provide free and open access to everything that’s out there. Unrestricted programing material also will be available by disk and CD-ROM for private use. And proprietary programing providers will offer limited access to certain topics and Internet sites.

Now, we just have to make sure that Washington lawmakers understand these distinctions. Certainly, government has a role in defining and legislating pornography on the TV and radio public airwaves, since there are a limited number of channels and frequencies available. However, there are no such technical limitations in the online world; choices abound. So trying to “fix” the problem with legislation is unnecessary. And CompuServe already is proving that the private sector can handle it.

Mark J. Grossman of East Patchogue is president of Grossman Strategies, a government and public relations consulting firm.

Mark J. Grossman, Let Online Services Decide Content.
Newsday, 01-04-1996, pp A37.