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Copyright

Title: Sex, Laws, & Cyberspace
Authors: Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan
Publisher: Henry Holt
Copyright: 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-4767-0
Pages: 250
Price: $24.95
Rating: 50%
These comments apply to the first hardback printing of Sex, Laws, & Cyberspace. I have not had a chance to review any subsequent printings of the book.

Sex, Laws, & Cyberspace, a 1996 book by Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan, succeeds in its goal of covering the spectrum of legal issues affecting the Internet and its users. On the down side, the book reads like an early draft of a series of magazine articles, is rife with spelling errors and inconsistencies, and offers some questionable legal analysis in the opening chapter.

Exporting Community Standards

Wallace and Mangan open the book by examining the Amateur Action Bulletin Board System (AABBS) case. In 1993, a Memphis, Tennessee, Postal Inspector named David Dirmeyer subscribed to AABBS, headquartered in Milpitas, California. Dirmeyer downloaded several pornographic images and ordered video tapes from the board's owners, Robert and Carleen Thomas. Believing the images to be obscene under Memphis community standards, he obtained a warrant from the San Jose police and seized the Thomas' computers. Since federal telecommunications law allows the government to prosecute in either district where an interstate crime is alleged to have been committed, charges were brought in the more conservative Memphis district. An Assistant U.S. Attorney convinced a Memphis jury to convict the California couple of distributing materials deemed obscene under "local" community standards.

The text walks the reader through the trial, with often pointed criticism of tactics used by the Thomas' attorney, Richard D. Williams. The words "haplessly" and "failure" reverberate throughout the authors' analysis. Unfortunately, Wallace and Mangan commit an equally inexcusable error when they delay discussing a pertinent Supreme Court case until the book's final chapter.

In Sable Communications v. Federal Communications Commission, the Supreme Court held that phone sex line owners are responsible for tailoring their messages to comply with the standards of the community from which each call originates. The authors argue 178 pages later that this requirement is unreasonable, saying "[t]he Court gives no hint how a national information provider should go about predicting the reaction of all fifty states (let alone thousands of localities) to its information...".

Wallace and Mangan's argument has merit, especially regarding Internet-accessible sites where it is often impossible to determine a customer's true point of origin. However, their failure to include such an on-point case as Sable in an otherwise well-done precedential analysis in Chapter 1 hurts the credibility of their position.

Other Important Issues

The book's middle chapters examine seven other issues, ranging from the Internet pornography "study" done by Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate Marty Rimm to Nebraska Senator James Exon's Communications Decency Act.

The authors seem to take particular joy in assailing the Rimm study, which was published in the Georgetown Law Journal and sparked a Time cover story with the headline "On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn."

The Time piece, written by senior staff writer Philip Elmer- Dewitt, quoted statistics from the study without criticism, listing Rimm as the "principal investigator" and implying the study was an official product of Carnegie Mellon. As Wallace and Mangan note, Rimm was actually "a thirty-year-old college senior, and the study was a student paper prepared under the supervision of faculty advisor Marvin Sirbu."

Rimm's paper figured prominently in the debate over Senator Exon's bill. After Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley added the Time article into the Congressional Record, Exon said, "I would reference the graphic picture on the front of Time Magazine today, which I think puts into focus very distinctly and directly what my friend from Iowa and this Senator have been talking about for a long, long time."

The five remaining chapters look at other important cases, such as banning bomb information on the Internet but not in print form, and the government's investigation into the export of the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption program. The accumulation of facts and analysis provides the authors a base from which to develop policy alternatives for the U.S. government and Internet users.

Recommendations for the Future

Wallace and Mangan use the analytical structure presented by Ithiel de Sola Pool in his 1983 book Technology and Freedom to examine the impact of regulation on the Internet. Pool's approach considers several factors:

  • Definition of the domain in which the policy operates
  • Availability of resources
  • Organization of access to resources
  • Establishment and enforcement of norms and controls
  • Problems at the system boundaries

As part of their analysis, the authors spend much of this chapter reviewing the history of censorship, especially as practiced by the Catholic Church and various governments, and quoting political philosophers like John Stuart Mill who wrote in favor of unfettered debate. Extending this analysis to the present day by including Supreme Court decisions and federal policy, they conclude that the Internet "is a constellation of printing presses and bookstores" deserving full First Amendment protection.

Though this conclusion is quite reasonable, their recommendations on how to treat the Internet based on this analogy are ill-defined and often repetitious. Distinguishing among edicts such as "The First Amendment applies in cyberspace", "Free speech is a good thing," and "Don't allow government to chill information distributors" is almost impossible. The scattered nature of their advice points to the book's major flaw: poor editing.

Infrastructure As Obstacle

A book's production values should be like sports officials -- if you never notice them, they are doing their job. The editorial staff assigned to Sex, Laws, & Cyberspace, which is credited right under the Library of Congress information on the reverse of the title page, must have had an impossibly tight deadline to miss as many obvious errors as they did. Those miscues include floating punctuation, inconsistent name spellings, other misspellings which would have been caught by any spell-checking program and, on page 26:

"In a post-trial affidavit, Carleen Thomas claimed that Williams never any notes in preparation for cross-examination of the government's witnesses made a major strategy of her new counsel on appeal was to claim that Williams was incompetent."

Indeed.

The Verdict

The infuriating number of textual errors, the analytical sleight of hand in Chapter 1, and a weak concluding chapter doom Sex, Laws, & Cyberspace. What's worse, almost all of the material will be familiar to regular readers of comp.org.eff.talk and comp.org.cpsr.talk. Wallace and Mangan cover every major development up to February 1996, a remarkable achievement for a book printed in March of the same year. But with a production effort that left off two editorial passes early, the book and an accompanying Web site at http://www.spectacle.org/freespch are decidedly not $24.95 better than information freely available on Usenet and the World Wide Web.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com)  is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.