Originally published in the October 1995 issue of Internet World
Displacing James Exxon and Canter & Siegel as chief villain of the Internet is Martin Rimm, a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) graduate student. His flawed undergraduate study, Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway, became the basis for Time’s recent “Cyberporn” cover story and ignited a firestorm of controversy on the Internet.
Rimm managed to get the student-run Georgetown Law Journal to publish his work, which examines how adult bulletin board system (BBS) operators marketed their wares online, as well as the pornography viewing habits of CMU students. He then convinced Time writer Philip Elmer-DeWitt to write the “Cyberporn” story. That article prompted investigations that resulted in backpedaling and tarnished reputations for Carnegie Mellon, Rimm, Time, and Elmer-DeWitt.
The moment it became available, the study was seized upon, by Net defenders and critics alike. Anti-porn activists were quick to use it to support Net-regulating legislation. But within days of the release of the Time story, Rimm, the study, and author Elmer-DeWitt were attacked from all sides. Rimm’s techniques and conclusions were shown to be at best inaccurate, at worst fraudulent. Thus, three weeks after publishing “Cyberporn,” Time, which had been defending its cover story and the study, wrote a follow-up article that discredited Rimm’s research.
The study’s and Time’s biggest sin was in representing adult BBSs as the Internet, implying that there was a lot of pornography on the Net based on figures for local adult BBSs. The study also stated that 83.5 percent of all images on Usenet were pornographic, but it neglected to mention that Usenet newsgroups with images make up only a small percentage of Usenet, and that Usenet makes up only a small percentage of Internet traffic.
When respected researchers managed to get their hands on the study, they gave it a detailed peer review, something not required by the Georgetown Law Journal. Professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak of Vanderbilt University, known for their expertise in online surveys, fired the first shot, detailing fundamental flaws in the research. They faulted the use of ambiguous terms like “cyberspace” (which misrepresented adult BBSs as the Internet), a lack of peer review and objectivity, and manipulation of the media prior to publication.
As more details emerged, Rimm’s image as an objective researcher was replaced with one of con artist. According to Brock Meeks, editor of Cyberwire Dispatch, Rimm approached adult BBS operators and characterized his research as studying how to better market pornographic material online. Many of the sysops agreed to help him with his research in exchange for a look at his findings. Thus, he allegedly helped promote pornography online while reporting on its proliferation.
Apparently attempting to profit from all sides, Rimm also wrote The Pornographer’s Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men, and Make Lots of Money.
Then, in late 1994, Rimm allowed CMU faculty to get an early look at Marketing Pornography, causing the university’s administration to censor sex-related newsgroups (and prompting Net community to later question his agenda.) It was during this controversy that Time learned about Rimm, who agreed give the magazine an exclusive look at study before it was published.
As the controversy exploded, some the people Rimm had listed as being part his research team turned out to have nothing to do with it and demanded names be removed. But CMU stood firm until three weeks later, when it released official statement about the study: “Provost Paul Christiano… will soon form a comittee of distinguished and knowledge faculty to examine in more detail the issues that have been raised about the study.”
The debate has now sprawled over the Web. It seems that, not unlike the Green Card incident, the Rimm study will live on in infamy.