Time's infamous "cyberporn" scare story author looks back 20 years later


In 1995 Time magazine published a cover story about online pornography that gave grandstanding politicians an excuse to try to censor the Internet. The politicians would have succeeded, if it weren't for the efforts of civil libertarians, especially Mike Godwin, who was staff counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the time.

The "Cyberporn" article was written by Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who relied almost exclusively on a research paper that was completely fraudulent. Elmer-DeWitt is now a writer for Fortune, and he wrote an essay about how his "Cyberporn" article nearly ruined him:

The problem with the story, which I sensed as I was writing it but was too green, too ambitious, too scared of losing my cover slot to address, was the news hook—the “report coming out this week” that I’d pitched to the editors as a Time Magazine exclusive guaranteed to make a splash.

The report—an undergraduate research paper published in a law journal—made a splash all right, but not the kind that reflected well on me or the magazine.

It was immediately attacked from several quarters. By civil liberties groups who saw it as an assault on free speech. By academics who saw through its tissue thin methodology. By sociologists who disputed its most provocative thesis, duly reported in Time, that the market for online porn was driven by a demand for images that couldn’t be found in the average magazine rack: Pedophilia (nude photos of children), hebephilia (youths) and paraphilia—a grab bag of “deviant” material that includes images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with animals.

One Time researcher assigned to my story remembers the study as “one of the more shameful, fear-mongering and unscientific efforts that we ever gave attention to.”

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