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Sex and the Internet: A volatile mix when kids are involved

peiken December 14, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EST

(CNN) -- Few impediments are strong enough to deter the curiosity of a 15-year-old boy.

And that certainly applies to the World Wide Web, where it's possible to find reams of information and images -- including some of the most graphic porn imaginable.

For us, that begs the question: Just how easy is it for two fairly average American kids to pick the lock leading into the sexually explicit frontier of cyberspace?

With their parents' permission, we asked teen-agers Matt and Chad Peiken to try to link up to some of the sexually explicit sites on the Internet.




This story is from a CNN special series:

The American Edge


Did the roadblocks designed to limit the material to adults foil them? Hardly.

"It's not very hard at all," says Chad Peiken. "I can get on there right now. I know the address."

Sen. Exon's crusade


exon

And that has Democratic Sen. J. James Exon of Nebraska mighty upset. "This is the sickest stuff I've ever seen," he says, while leafing through a blue book of what he considers particularly egregious examples of cyberporn.

Called by Exon the "samples of shame," the three-ring binder kept in his ornate Capitol office is Exon's exhibit A in the fight to keep filth off the Web.

"This is far more than pinups," says Exon. "It is the most far-reaching, despicable pornography from sick minds that are being spread pretty much at will to kids."

Exon is one of the authors of the Communications Decency Act, a law to regulate the Internet that was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge. The law is now headed for the Supreme Court.

"We are convinced the Supreme Court will not take a much more judicial approach, and not be bamboozled," Exon predicts.

Exon's law makes it illegal to transmit indecent words or pictures to children over the Internet. "I'm worried about my grandkids, and I'm worried about other people's kids."

Legal Pandora's box

But keeping tabs on the Internet is virtually impossible, and trying to regulate it opens up a legal Pandora's box pitting First Amendment rights against public decency.

"You can't regulate it," says Chad Peiken. "And if a child of 15 or 16 wants to find it, they can find it one way or another."

We asked Chad and Matt to try to connect to the Web site for Playboy magazine, which is relatively mild. Access to racier material is restricted to those over 18.

But the boys were able to avoid this roadblock simply by typing in a fake birthdate.

Playboy concedes it's possible for underage teens to tap into its site, but the publicly traded Chicago-based media company doesn't want to hamper a business that has a great deal of potential.

'Playboy owns the Internet'

"Playboy owns the Internet," says Eileen Kent, in charge of Playboy's computer operation. "It's ours."

Kent says she expects the Web to be a leading source of income for Playboy by the end of the decade. "Our advertisers are extremely happy with the results they've had as a result of being on the Playboy Web page. And it's because of this incredible amount of traffic we get."


elf

If Playboy is a problem for some politicians, Elf Sternberg is a nightmare. From small kitchen in a tiny apartment in a modest Seattle neighborhood, Sternberg manages the most popular news group on the Internet: "alt.sex."

"People started asking me for advice, and I started giving it. I developed a reputation as somebody who knew what they were talking about."

Operating what could be described as the Dear Abby of cybersex, Sternberg has drawn some 300,000 computer users in just three months.

Unlike Playboy, he makes no money for his effort. He makes a living as a computer programmer. His "alt.sex" site is fairly technical, with lots of "how to" stuff, and therein lies much of its appeal.

Not surprisingly, Elf agrees with the bulk of Internet experts who believe that any attempt to keep kids away from adult sites on the Web is doomed to fail.

"People who are creating it are several steps ahead of the people who want to control it," he says.

He cites the word "breast," which was banned by America Online as part of a group of sexually oriented words as part of an effort to deter potentially offensive language.

AOL did a quick-about face after news groups for breast cancer, patients and other sites were back in business.

"It's unenforceable," says Sternberg. "You would have to shut down the 'Net."

The futility of restricting language over the Internet is obvious for Chad and Matt. "Instead of writing sex, which they have banned, you can write XXX," he notes.

Restricting obscenity on the Internet is a conundrum simply because of the sheer nature of the medium. Just about anybody can put any kind of pornography on a home page.


peiken

There are some new products that are supposed to block access to sites that parents find objectionable. But, as Exon notes, blocking devices "become obsolete almost as fast as they're put in place."

Certainly, the best way to keep tabs on what goes over the Internet is supervision. "The only way to ensure that a kid doesn't get into something that's really inappropriate is for a parent to be in the room," says Playboy's Kent.

But the Internet is growing at a tremendous rate. There were about one million sites in 1993, and today there are about 12 million, with predictions of 25 million a year from now.

That means it's getting increasingly difficult for parents to monitor their children's viewing at all times."The reality is, if it doesn't happen in your house, they're going to go over to somebody else's house, and they're going to get access there," says Sara Peiken, Chad and Matt's mother,

Perhaps the only real way to address the issue is for people -- including teen-agers -- to police the Internet themselves. Says Marv Peiken, the father of the boys: "If they can make their own decisions, then we're going to have kids who are ready for the world."



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