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[Safe Highways...] ...And a Cleaner I-Way

Students from Harvard to Haverford, Boston College to Bryn Mawr have made a case that government intervention isn't the only way to fight smut on the Internet.

Recently, four Cornell University freshmen published a highly offensive, sexually explicit ''Top 75 reasons why women should not have freedom of speech'' list and sent it traveling the Internet. The list appeared to condone, even glorify, rape. The men received hundreds of angry responses.

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The debate between those who favor tighter government controls on smut in information networks and those concerned about the erosion of First Amendment rights in cyberspace has been fierce.

The incident at Cornell offers one example of how the Internet can be self-policing. The retribution landing on the four Cornell offenders may support the contention that a new federal law penalizing those who distribute sexually explicit material on the Internet would go further than needed. Unfortunately, some exchanges on the net go far beyond sophomoric misjudgment, getting into such illegal areas as child pornography. Self-policing does not seem to have limited such problems.

Senate and House proposals, now being compromised in conference committee, are amendments to the telecommunications-reform bill. The legislation focuses on children and how much access they have to ''indecent'' material. Critics say the Senate's version is overly broad, covering everything from child pornography to profanity. (The Supreme Court recently agreed to consider a First Amendment challenge to a federal law encouraging cable-TV operators to restrict indecent programming. The high court's ruling will likely affect regulation of on-line material as well.)

The private sector is seeking a workable alternative. Earlier this fall, leading software producers, publishers, and on-line services formed a consortium to create technological standards to control questionable material on the net. With blocking software, parents could determine what Internet sites their children tap into.

Hundreds of college students decided for themselves what is unacceptable on the net. After the outcry, the authors wrote a letter to Cornell's campus newspaper expressing ''deep remorse'' for their ''stupid actions.''

The blocking software under discussion could have kept the Cornell list away from minors. As for college students, informal ''policers'' showed how deterrence can work. The question now: Will that suffice?

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