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Cyberporn study:
more heat than light?

How does an undergraduate electrical engineering student get his research paper published in an academic journal and gain the attention of the press, Congress, American citizens, and vast numbers of computer users in cyberspace?

The answer is simple: Hit two hot buttons, pornography and the Internet. That's what Martin Rimm, now a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon, did. The Georgetown Law Journal gave Rimm's paper credibility by publishing it, and Time magazine sensationalized it by using it as the basis for a cover story titled, "On A Screen Near You: Cyberporn" (July 3, 1995). U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, used Rimm's findings to justify a bill in Congress to make it a crime to knowingly allow the transmission of sexually explicit materials to minors.

In the abstract of his study, Rimm claimed, "The research team at Carnegie-Mellon University has undertaken the first systematic study of pornography on the information superhighway."(1) surveyed 917,410 images, descriptions, short stories, and animations from primarily "adult" bulletin board systems. Among his findings were the following: "Computer networks represent a new technology for pornographic distribution. . ."; "Pedophilic and paraphilic pornography are widely available. . ."; and "83.5 percent of all images posted on the Usenet are pornographic."

The reaction to Rimm's study and to the Time article was immediate and vocal. Denizens of the Internet, First Amendment advocates, civil libertarians, academicians, and a host of others rushed to criticize shoddy research methods, unsubstantiated conclusions, and poor study design.

Columbia University professors are among those with strong opinions about the media's exploitation of this flawed but sexy study and the broader issues that have been raised.

Ken Goldstein, professor of journalism, noted the inherent problem with publishing studies in non-peer-reviewed publications. In this case, Rimm had worked out an exclusivity deal with both the Georgetown Law Journal (which, contrary to widespread belief, is not peer-reviewed) and Time such that no one was permitted to read the study until after it was published. Goldstein strongly warns journalists against giving too much credence to non-peer-reviewed studies. He cites the cold fusion story as one example of scientists releasing study results to the press before they were reviewed, validated, and reproduced. "When it became clear that initial claims were overly enthusiastic based on scientific evidence, the story fizzled out of the press," he says.

According to Goldstein, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, the author of the Time article, was able to evade responsibility for the content of his article by using what Goldstein calls "the attribution factor." He claimed that he was simply reporting what Rimm told him. But, Goldstein says, any good journalist checks facts with recognized experts.

Careful examination of the methodology is also essential. Critics fault Rimm with unscientific methodology that is easily recognized as such. He took a small subset of the Internet ("adult" BBSes) and found that more than 80 percent of all images downloaded were pornographic. He then extrapolated that figure to conclude that more than 80 percent of all images found on the Internet are pornographic.

Sen. Grassley, who had used Rimm's study in support of his bill (S. 892: the Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act of 1995) and emphasized that the study had come from a well-respected academic institution and published in an equally reputable journal, was forced to backpedal away from Rimm in light of post-publication criticism. He removed Rimm from the witness list of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on computer pornography and children in response to the announcement of a formal investigation into whether Rimm and his faculty advisers violated academic and ethical guidelines.

As the Internet was being attacked by would-be censors, the digital highway was instantly abuzz with critiques, analyses, and comments of all kinds regarding the myriad issues brought up by the cyberporn scandal. This type of freedom of exchange is exactly what opponents of federal regulation fear could be sacrificed if any type of censorship is allowed on the Internet.

Alfred Aho, chairman of computer sciences at Columbia, notes that the Internet is a form of information dissemination, just like print and video, and there are people who distribute salacious material. "To condemn the entire Internet because of the availability of pornography is like suggesting all magazine publishing cease because some magazines are pornographic," he says.

Aho says regulating the Internet is a "thorny issue." When the National Research Council examined the issue, three possibilities were explored: 1) regulation at the source; 2) regulation through transmission; and 3) regulation at reception. Aho says the first is fraught with possibilities for First Amendment violation. The second is already happening to some degree through guides who look at what's being input. This is problematic because it's impossible to look at every message, and public agencies are not allowed by law to look at the content of messages. Aho believes the third option is the only viable one. This involves a parent's right to regulate information a child sees and could be implemented in the same way telephone and cable industries block transmissions. "Using this method makes it possible to keep the tenets of free speech but still protect children," says Aho.

Aho noted that one of the problems with regulation is that even if some sort of law were passed, it could only apply to Internet users in the United States. "The Constitution is only a local ordinance on a global infrastructure," he says.

Steve Shapiro, National Legal Director of the ACLU and adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, opposes government regulation of the Internet. "This whole scandal fed into an already existing impulse to control the Internet," he says, adding that "the uncontrollability of the Internet is what makes it attractive but is also what makes some people nervous. We still only have a dim view of the possibilities of the Internet. To impose censorship based on assumptions is short-sighted and doomed."

About the Rimm study and the press coverage of it, Shapiro says, "Even if the study were valid, it wouldn't support censorship as the solution to the problem it asserts exists."

­­Lynne Christensen

Related links...

Rimm's original paper

Paul Burton's "Censorship and the Internet" page, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

  1. Rimm M. "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway." Georgetown Law Journal 1995;83(5):1849-1915.

LYNNE CHRISTENSEN is a free-lance medical and scientific journalist whose work has appeared in Genetic Engineering News, In Vivo, and Cosmopolitan. She was previously a contributor to BioWorld, an online biotechnology news service. Her e-mail address is

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