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Pamela Lee and the Internet

By Talia Milgrom-elcott

The hottest news on the other side of the country is a new video. Not surprisingly, given that this is Los Angeles, this is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill movie experience. In fact, it's a home video. It all sounds incredibly benign, except that the movie in question is Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson Lee's sex video. And they did not intend it for public consumption. As the story goes, the two megastars, to the background crooning of M.C. Hammer, filmed themselves having sex over the course of a number of days. Somehow, the film was stolen from their home and promptly copied and sold on the streets of Los Angeles and beyond. Not surprisingly, the movie--minus the sound effects--got picked up and put on the Web. Now, everyone with a computer and access to the World Wide Web can see the no longer private parts of Pamela and Tommy.

The story itself is more prurient than newsworthy, but the issues it elicits transcend the particular details of the Lee household. This newest twist on sex, lies and videotapes highlights the questionable role of the Internet as a purveyor of information.

Although the Internet has been heralded by Bill Clinton and Bill Gates alike as the great equalizer, providing all people everywhere with access to the same knowledge, this laudable--if lofty--vision of the Internet begs serious consideration of the laws of access and privacy on the Web. A smart and pointed cartoon in the Dec. 15 issue of The New Yorker takes a stab at the anonymity and freedom of the Internet. The cartoon depicts a big dog who sits at a desk in front of a computer telling a smaller dog: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, and nobody knows who stole the Pamela Anderson Lee and Tommy Lee video that you're watching.

Except that it isn't so simple. Computers have a way of remembering which Web sites you access, and the tracking message that Web sites often send back to your computer can become permanently embedded on your hard drive. The traceability of 'Net activity and the resultant concern over privacy has spawned a new product line: the virtual alarm system.

Guard Dog Deluxe, for instance, is designed to protect users against present and future security and privacy threats while surfing the Internet. According to its advertisement, Guard Dog Deluxe protects sensitive information by creating a virtual "firewall" around files that contain personal information, such as passwords and Quicken data files.

At the present moment, information posted on the Internet maintains the status of private communication, much like a personal letter; by rendering it protected private information under the Constitution, it is possible, and rather simple, to divine who wrote what message.

It is this unusual confluence of private correspondence with public access and potential traceability that is making news in Japan. In Japan, an article from Reuters' wire service--a prime example of the positive possibilities of the Internet--reported, an official study has recommended that the government consider unmasking the people who post libelous, slanderous or otherwise damaging statements on the Internet. At the present moment, such action would be a breach of Japan's constitution, which protects the privacy of personal communication. The study, issued by the Japanese Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, found that the use of the Internet for defamation or for making "public other sensitive information" --think Tommy and Pam-- "warrants reconsideration of privacy rights."

The call to reconsider these laws for the Internet is premised on one central claim: the Internet is a new mode of communication, a serious break from the telephone and the mail, and the laws that have governed our use of those media do not adequately address the intricacies and potentialities of the 'Net.

Privacy has been invaded in the past, and the Lee family video would still have been stolen and distributed in the era preceding the World Wide Web. The difference now is not merely of magnitude--that whereas before, only a select few would be able to watch the lascivious feats of Pamela and Tommy, while now many millions of people can join the ranks of voyeurs. It is a difference of kind: communication on the 'Net is neither private nor public. Internet communication is a new form deserving of a system of governance created especially for it. At least Tommy and Pamela could have had a moderately more private sex life.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column will resume next semester.

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