SIPB deletes explicit story file
By Dave Watt
The Student Information Processing Board recently deleted an archive of sexually explicit stories from one of their computers, in response to a request from James D. Bruce '60, MIT vice president for information systems. Stories from the archive were accessible to users connected to the international network.
Bruce's action came after he received phone calls about the server from the National Science Foundation, which administers the nation's high-speed backbone network known as NSFNet. The NSF has been reminding network clients of its "acceptable use" guidelines for computer traffic on NSFNet, which was created to support research and education among academic institutions.
Some at MIT have expressed concern that the NSF's actions might lead to greater censorship of network information. "This isn't censorship yet, but it might become it," said Andrew M. Greene '91, chairman of SIPB.
But Greene said SIPB will not oppose MIT's decision to follow the "acceptable use" guidelines. "This thing is running on MIT computers, the MIT network, and NSFNet. Use of those networks is a privilege, and it is reasonable to expect responsibilities with those privileges," Greene said.
Minors could request
sexually explicit stories
The archive, which was set up by Jean M. Diaz of SIPB, was a collection of sexually explicit stories submitted to a popular Usenet newsgroup [see explanation of Usenet, page 6], alt.sex.bondage, and distributed worldwide. After the stories were posted on the network, Diaz saved some of them on bloom-beacon.mit.edu, a computer managed by SIPB.
She also wrote a mail server program to respond automatically to requests by electronic mail for the files containing the stories. She then posted regular articles to alt.sex.bondage explaining how to use the mail server.
Anyone with access to the world computer network, including minors, could request the stories, in violation of many state obscenity statutes.
Bruce also felt the presence of the archive at MIT contributed to an atmosphere of sexual harassment. Diaz, however, said that she had never received any complaints until after SIPB removed the archive.
Explicit traffic persists
Shutting down MIT's archive has neither ended the flow of sexually explicit stories on the network nor prevented people from getting the stories from other sources. According to Diaz, the stories she archived have been sent to another site, which will begin making them available by mail again within a few weeks. In addition, several new sexually explicit stories have appeared in the alt.sex.bondage newsgroup during the past few weeks.
One, called "Cindy's Turnabout," describes a woman taking revenge on her boss for a previous rape and torture. The story, written by Michael J. Freeman of Texas A&M University, includes descriptions of violent rape and torture. It was written as a sequel to "Cindy's Torment," another story distributed on alt.sex.bondage several months ago, which detailed an equally violent rape and torture scenario.
Houston Chronicle story
brings NSF, MIT response
The presence of pornographic material on the net was first reported in the Houston Chronicle on June 10. The paper's article charged that MIT had become a chief distributor of sexually explicit traffic on the net, and provoked an inquiry by the NSF into network traffic.
When Greene learned of the Chronicle's story, he contacted Bruce to ask for a ruling from MIT as to whether the archive should be permitted to remain. Greene said that SIPB first learned of the article through the Chronicle story; people routinely set up mail servers and mailing lists on SIPB computers without prior announcement, he explained.
Jane S. Caviness, an NSF deputy division director, also contacted Bruce to verify some of the details of the Chronicle's story, and reminded him of the NSF's acceptable use policy. Bruce said the NSF was under pressure from members of Congress to take action.
Caviness did not believe that the drive to control traffic in pornography raised any first amendment issues. "[The NSFNet is] not like a phone company: The NSFNet is really a kind of special purpose network, limited to both organizations and uses which are appropriate," she said. "Some communication should not use the NSFNet backbone because it doesn't follow the research and education guidelines."
Diaz suggested that the NSF is only selectively enforcing the acceptable use guidelines. "I think they're being inconsistent by not trying to shut down all of alt.sex," she said. In addition to alt.sex.bondage, alt.sex.pictures and rec.arts.erotica are also propagated via NSFNet.
Without further complaints, Bruce said, the matter is closed. "The Institute has a stated policy; we've taken a particular act with respect to one server. Unless people call particular acts to my attention, I'm not going to pursue it further," he said.
Caviness also will only pursue this further if complaints persist. "If [we receive reports] that there are inappropriate uses of the network, I could follow up. We're not on a witch hunt," she explained.