Milpitas residents Carleen and Robert Thomas found a lucrative way to sell the hardest of hardcorepornography to smut fans all over the country: by computer bulletin board. Then their little Silicon Valley startup attracted the interest of a U.S. Postal S

"Miller happened at a time when this technology wasn't in existence," says Nolan. "In the context of bulletin boards, the government is establishing that the local community is anywhere that a person accesses the information. It's intimidation. With the publicity this case has received, it has a chilling effect on anybody running a bulletin board and distributing material."

Others aren't so sure that the courts will view computer networks as being so radically different than other forms of communication as to warrant their own obscenity standards.

"I think the courts will have no problem upholding the [Thomas'] conviction," says Stephen Bates, a lawyer and senior fellow with the Annenberg Washington Program, a communications think tank. "I know some computer enthusiasts have argued for a new definition of community standards for cyberspace, but the Supreme Court has already dealt with something similar to that in allowing restrictions on phone sex. You might have a case in saying that there shouldn't be local restrictions placed on ftp or Usenet sites, anything that's a free public area. But if it's a commercial venture like a for-profit bulletin board, then the operator is responsible for what goes on the board and who accesses it."

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Carey Heckman, co-director of the Stanford Law and Technology Policy Center, thinks the Thomas' case may turn out to be a temporary setback on the road to what he calls "the death of geography."

"Many of the regula-tions that have evolved in our society -- everything from sales-tax rates and gambling laws to obscenity standards -- are grounded on geographic divisions," says Heckman. "But for computer networks, geography doesn't work. In a global village, we no longer have the ability to preserve geographic enclaves. That doesn't mean people should be forced to see and hear things they don't want to, or that you can't build safeguards into the system. But it's unreasonable to think that you can limit access to information on a large scale. I think what we're seeing now is an attempt to force new technologies to look and act like old technologies, and that approach has never been successful."

Until this brave new world is sorted out, computer network operators will have to be more careful, not only about what kind of information they carry, but more importantly, where they allow access.

"Places like Tennessee are quickly becoming the end of the network," notes Keith Henson. "They're putting up a big sign at the border that says, 'The information superhighway ends here.' Because no one's going to take the risk of going into those areas. And that will just make those places more backward than they already are."

If nothing else, the case serves as a timely reminder that the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular ideas, a high-minded ideal Robert and Carleen Thomas have done their sordid best to test to the limit. In the end, protecting the Thomas' right to freedom of expression on the network doesn't sanction what they say so much as their right to say it. Otherwise, everyone's free-speech rights in cyberspace may turn out to be more virtual than real.

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