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Pornogrpahy Display in 6.001 Provokes Debate on Decency

By Dan McGuire
Editor in Chief

Students in Structure and Interpretations of Computer Programs (6.001) were shocked, confused, and amused when they entered 10-250 for lecture yesterday.

The home page for a pornographic web site was displayed on the projection screen at the front of the auditorium. Its logo had full frontal nudity and a banner advertisement promised "full screen, top resolution" pictures.

The web page was the introduction to a lecture on the Platform for Internet Content Selection, a system being designed by the World Wide Web Consortium to filter out pornographic web sites and other objectionable content.

The objective was to "demonstrate that [pornography on the Internet] really is a problem," said Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Harold Abelson PhD '73, one of the course's four lecturers, who proposed that the graphic be used to introduce the lecture. "I'm told that people in the class were offended. That's offensive material. I think it's appropriate that people reacted" the way they did, he added.

"I was of two minds of it then and I'm of two minds of it now," said James S. Miller '76, a research associate at the Laboratory for Computer Science who lectured yesterday. He said that the fact that it was offensive demonstrated the need for a rating system. "This is a page that does not ask you for your age" or provide for any form of protection, he said.

"I still don't think that showing this in a 6.001 lecture is a good idea," said one student who attended yesterday's lecture and requested anonymity. "The class includes people who have strong beliefs against pornography for many different reasons," the student added. "Some people have moral convictions against it."

"You have a choice about how graphic you want to be when you're trying to make an educational point," said Abelson. "The point "doesn't get across if you say there's pornography on the Internet and boy is it a problem,'" he said. "I think the problem is that if we did something less graphic that would have made the point less well," he added.

"We're trying to do things that are very topical," said Abelson. After the failure of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have criminalized putting explicit information on the Internet, the computer industry has turned to the idea of using filters to sift out inappropriate content. "What's going on now is real debate over whether we should use" filtering, he said.

Reactions to page mixed

The most common response to the page was disbelief. "At first I thought it was a hack because it didn't seem like it fit into a 6.001 lecture," said the student.

After people realized that it was part of the class, reactions began to vary. "Some people laughed that was more or less my reaction. I thought it humorous to see it up there," another student said. "It wasn't what I expected to see up there in a 6.001 lecture," the student added.

"Some would look at the board like make it go away,'" the student said. "It was hard to tell how many people were offended by it but it was a fair number."

Most of those who objected said that they thought the point could have been made without the graphic demonstration. "I don't think that demonstrating that [pornography is] a problem in a lecture makes up for the fact that it's inappropriate and very threatening."

One student said that while showing the web page made some sense, showing "the source code was more appropriate than the actual page since what he was showing was in the" operation of PICS.

Several members of the class approached Miller after the lecture. "They felt that it was an offensive picture and that it distracted them from the rest of the lecture," said Miller.

"I want people to know that I think it's completely appropriate that people are complaining. I encourage them to do that. I don't want them to think that we thought this was some thing that only weirdos" would be offended by, Abelson said. Being offended by the page was "a completely legitimate reaction."

And that, he said, was part of the point. "If you look at the stuff and see that other people around you who you know are know are reasonable - real people who have good taste - that makes a point in a very different way," he said. "If you're one of the people that's offended it makes the problem much more real," he added.

Abelson said that he was not sure whether he would do a similar demonstration next year. "I don't want to promise one," he said.