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Would-be Censors Base Arguments on Bogus Research

By Howard Rheingold

Would-be censors are using the big lie technique to manipulate public opinion on the eve of far-reaching and intrusive legislation. Time Magazine's June 2, 1995 "Cyberporn" cover story, based on allegedly scientific research into pornography on the Internet, has already been cited on the floor of the U.S. Congress in connection with the so-called "Communications Decency Act" and other attempts to create a legislative staging area for federal control of what citizens post online.

But the case for censorship is falling apart as the Time article and the report on which it was based come under scrutiny. Two of the experts who had been asked to comment on the research discovered serious flaws in the report - not just scientific quibbles, but gross misrepresentation and bogus methodology. The research was not submitted to peer review by specialists in the appropriate scientific field, as required for all respectable scientific findings, and the full report was embargoed because of an exclusive arrangement with Time. Professor Donna Hoffman of Vanderbilt University and Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation were asked by Time editors to comment on the conclusions. Both expressed serious misgivings about the validity of the study, but they were denied access to the full report.

Martin Rimm an undergraduate, calling himself "a research team from Carnegie Mellon," conducted a survey of (mostly) computer bulletin board systems (BBSs). Keep in mind that the Internet is something entirely different from BBSs. Although his study concentrated on BBSs, Rimm generalized it. The official title of his paper in the non-peer-reviewed Georgetown Law Journal was "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway."

Time editor Phillip Elmer-DeWitt asked Professor Donna Hoffman of Vanderbilt University their opinions of the study (based on nothing more than the abstract) because she and her partner, Thomas Novak, are marketing experts who specialize in studying the Internet. After a thorough review of the full Rimm research report, Hoffman and Novak flatly accuse Rimm of "misrepresentation, manipulation, lack of objectivity, and methodological flaws". The entire critique can be found at Hoffman & Novak's website. More information about the flaws in the Rimm research is available at HotWired.

Hoffman and Novak emphasize: "The [Rimm] study is positioned as 'Marketing pornography on the information superhighway.' Yet, it deals neither with marketing nor the information superhighway, and displays a considerable lack of understanding of both areas."

Godwin, EFF legal counsel, has an equally strong opinion: "Time and leading science-and-technology journalist Philip Elmer-DeWitt agreed to publicize, and implicitly endorse, an undergraduate's flawed and misleading 'research' about porn on the Net under conditions that prevented any competent independent review that would have blunted the sensationalistic effect of Time's story. In doing so, Time and DeWitt betrayed the core value of journalistic professionalism - never surrender your independence - and, by doing so, they also betrayed their readers and the American public as a whole. Countless Americans trust Time to tell the truth and to be beholden to no one. Time violated that trust."

Ironically, the very medium under attack by pro-censorship politicians played an essential role in the debunking of the Rimm report. Hoffman, Godwin, DeWitt, myself, and others are all active participants in the Well's Media conference, where the story of the flawed research first surfaced.

Basing sweeping legislation on bad science demeans scholarship, journalism, and democracy. Before our representatives make any laws based on this research, they owe it to us to take a critical look at the research, now that alarms have been raised. We should make major decisions affecting our liberties on the basis of legitimate research, not pseudoscience, disinformation, and demagoguery. Download the Hoffman and Novak critique, print it, and mail it to your representative today.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold