April 11, 1996
Prosecution of Compuserve
Is Sought Under Decency Act
By PAMELA MENDELS
A conservative Christian group has asked the Justice Department to
investigate whether a new Compuserve service featuring sex material violates a
Federal law designed to restrict children's access to smut in cyberspace.
In an April 1 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, the group, the American
Family Association, accused Compuserve of "offering pornography and other
sexually oriented material on its on-line service to its users, including
children." The letter urged Reno to launch a criminal investigation of the
company for possible violations of the Federal Communications Decency Act,
part of the telecommunications overhaul signed into law on Feb. 8.
Patrick A. Trueman, director of governmental affairs in the Washington office
of the American Family Association, said on Wednesday that Compuserve had not
set up rigorous enough controls to block children's access to its new adult
feature . This failure, he said, could violate a controversial Decency Act
provision that outlaws the use of interactive computer services to display
"patently offensive" sexual material in a way that could be viewed by those
under 18 years of age.
The Decency Act is now the subject of a court challenge by the American Civil
Liberties Union and other groups that argue that the law is an
unconstitutional abridgment of free speech. A number of computer and on-line
companies, Compuserve among them, have joined the suit.
A Justice Department spokesman said Wednesday that the complaint had been
forwarded to the department's criminal division. Justice Department lawyers
have agreed to refrain from prosecuting anyone under the contested provisions
of the law while the case is being heard in Federal court in Philadelphia. If
the law is upheld, however, the Government could begin prosecuting violations
dating from Feb. 8.
Daphne H. Kent, a spokeswoman for Compuserve, which has 4.3 million
subscribers, said Wednesday that company officials believed they had set up
adequate controls to block children's access to the new site.
"We have not violated the Communications Decency Act," Kent said. "In fact,
we have made a number of efforts to restrict access to minors."
The subject of the complaint is a forum called MacGlamour, which was added to
Compuserve late last month. CompuServe offers more than 3,000 services,
including forums that range in topics from gardening tips to computer
The MacGlamour forum allows members to download what its moderators bill as
R-rated photographs and QuickTime movies with titles like "Emily Removes Her
Bra and Panties" is one of about 30 of Compuserve's features containing adult
Compuserve offers subscribers a free mechanism for blocking access to any
forums, as well as any adult feature the service may offer in the future, Kent
said. In addition, she said, "We've got warnings pasted all over to alert
But Trueman said that on-line services should set up a more stringent control
system that would allow only those with adult identifications to enter areas
with sexually explicit material.
"My legal objection is that the statute would say they haven't taken steps to
prevent children from having access to it," Trueman said. "The nonlegal point
is that even if this law hadn't been there, I think it is irresponsible for
Compuserve to make this available on this system when they know a child will
have access to it."
Trueman served as chief of the child exploitation and obscenity section in
the criminal division of the Justice Department in the Bush Administration.
The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., promotes what it
describes as "the Biblical ethic of decency in American society" and has
organized a number of campaigns to protest what it views as indecency on
television and elsewhere in the media. Advertisements for Calvin Klein
fashions and the television show "NYPD Blue" have been among the group's
Compuserve, based in Columbus, Ohio, is a division of H&R Block.
In late December, Compuserve announced that under a threat from German
prosecutors it had closed access worldwide to more than 200 Usenet newsgroups,
Internet user groups roughly analogous to its own forums, because some of the
sites dealt in child pornography.
In that case the company, which has about a million German subscribers, took
the action after a Munich prosecutor warned that the on-line service could be
held accountable for distributing sexual material that is illegal in Germany.
The Munich case stirred international attention, since it was the first time a
government's action led to worldwide Internet censorship.
The decision also attracted a barrage of criticism of Compuserve worldwide,
especially on the Internet, for allowing one government to dictate values to
all users of a global network. On Feb. 13, Compuserve removed the ban, saying
that it would instead provide subscribers with software that could be employed
to selectively block any material the user found offensive.
It is that software that Trueman and the American Family Association now
assert is inadequate under the Communications Decency Act.