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CFP'93 - Dixon

CFP'93 - Women, Public Policy, and the Information Age

March 9-12, 1993 in Burlingame, CA

by Janet Dixon

March 12, 1993

How does a society make wise decisions? How do we determine who we are and what we become? How do we organize ourselves and our resources to match these perceptions? These questions are particularly relevant to information and communications policy. Technology and economics deal largely with immediate problems, focused on particular outcomes in terms of their specific success or failure. Left to themselves, they could create a post-industrial information structure that would be difficult to modify with public policies in the future. On the other hand, reaching consensus in any area of public policy is difficult, especially in communications and information matters. There are strong contending interests involved, together with a healthy First Amendment tradition against the government interference (Dizard, 1989).

My position on women, public policy, and the information age focuses on harassment, pornography, and on-line behavior and suggests gender guidelines for those in the field.

It is clear that letting technology and economics determine the trade-offs between right to privacy and free speech versus sexual harassment and abuse without public policies which are followed perpetuates negative stereotypes. There is a paid advertisement in our area running at midnight called "Dial Rhonda". It is a service which uses the advances of technologies (broadcast and telecommunications) to show all of several so called beautiful women, provocatively dressed talking on the telephone (a 900 number at $1.95/ minute) to "guy men". Rhonda wanders around the inviting penthouse apartment interviewing the young ladies while they are between telephone calls. Of course in this commercial, which lasts with 30 to 60 minutes, all of the "operators" are women in the stereotypical view of women as sex object. Other ads at "prime times" like the "Jessica Hahn" hour offer another dial 900 number to talk to a beautiful woman in the commercial about your fantasy. Free enterprise, opportunity? You bet. Like electronic media, television is also run predominantly by white males whose viewpoints determine what we, as a society, are exposed to. These men set the nation's agenda. Am I reporting anything new?

With the on-line environment and its inevitable ubiquity, we have the opportunity to either continue perpetuating and reinforcing negative stereotypes, or changing in a positive way, how society views women using media or media using women. With the latter, women can be portrayed as the intellectual contributors that they are and not reduced to sex objects or toys. The national agenda is moving towards a more respectful view of women, however, what we hear and what we see on television are contradictory. How will society deal with the discrepancy?

"Surrogate sex" is already popular in the on-line environment. With the fear of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, why not? I'll tell you why not, because it begins with harassment. We are told not to use a feminine computer ID on the net or you may be approached to have a relationship or be pestered to the point where you no longer use that portion of the net. Inequality perpetuates. Obscene telephone calls are illegal and so too should obscene use of the net.

Cornell University announced that it will disconnect from its networks those computers (whether or not owned by the University) used to transmit material in violation of university policies and codes, or the state or federal laws. Cornell saw an increase in reported cases of sexual harassment over the past year that could very well explain the school's desire to regulate its networks. In particular "high tech" harassment increased, with four reports of harassment via computer in the form of electronic messages, screen savers, computer graphics, and sexual sounds being sent to terminals. (

Sexual terrorism refers to the system by which males frighten, and by frightening, dominate and control females, even in the form of obscene phone calls. Of 58 respondents (18-52 yrs old) in a survey, 53 had received at least 1 obscene phone call at some time. 23 had received 1-5 calls, 21 had received 6-25 calls, and 9 received over 25 calls. While respondents reported a variety of responses to obscene phone calls, most experienced them as "terroristic.'' The level of fear and perception of harm were linked to prior knowledge or experience of male violence. The dynamics of obscene telephone calls mirror the social construction of gender and the fusion of dominance and sexuality (Sheffield & Coll, 1989 Dec).

Last January MacWorld was held in San Francisco. Apple Computer announced Quicktime, a multimedia program, but according to a San Jose Mercury News article, not the way that Apple would like. Scattered among the 500 exhibit booths at the show were several hawking the latest in computer pornography. Quicktime is an inexpensive way to digitize video and store it on computer disks for later playback. North-Hollywood based Inerotica provided graphic evidence at a crowded display in the middle of the main exhibit hall, where it demonstrated a CD-ROM involving a female night security guard who, with the click of a mouse does a little more than just make her rounds. Inerotica's Larry Miller said "Quicktime makes it easy for people like us to be able to (create) something without an exorbitant budget". One show attendee who paid $90 to attend the show said that she was offended by the display. The sound was turned up full blast at a particularly sensitive point in the program. She said that she felt harassed. When she complained she said the exhibition manager's threatened to throw her out. (Nagel, 1993)

A survey of netnews use conducted in January 1993 revealed that the second most frequently read newsgroup globally was (8.1% of survey population). 68% of netnews sites receive this group. 6.4% read, 4.9%, bondage, 3.7% alt.personals, alt.binaries. pictures.erotica.d at 3.8% and the 34th most popular. Netnews is in part supported by public funds. Should public funds be expended to support such negative behavior?

It is illegal to use the computer for pornography and solicitation of prostitution. The former commander of Goodfellow Technical Training Center was sentenced to dismissal from the Air Force after being found guilty of pornography charges on Jan. 25. Maxwell, a 26-year Air Force veteran, was charged July 2 with conduct unbecoming an officer for using his personal computer to solicit, collect and distribute child pornography and pornographic information. He was also charged with interstate transmission of indecent language and pornography via the computer.

Issues regarding telephones, computer networks, and other communications media are at present treated separately and differently. Yet in the future, each desktop or home information center will incorporate voice, video, text and graphics. It is important for technical and ethical reasons that consistent and positive policies and practices be promoted in the near future. The technical challenges of managing and integrating the simultaneous transmission of voice, picture, text, and graphics into the workstation, where each is governed by separate legal, security, privacy, and ethical considerations, boggles the mind. The notion that it is all right to portray women as sex objects in a graphics display and simultaneously prohibit treating women as sex objects in text on the same workstation screen is ludicrous. How can we influence policies regarding gender issues in computing and telecommunications? We can talk about it and we can discuss it with public officials, professional groups, etc.

The Computer Systems Policy Project (CSPP) CSPP is an affiliation of Chief Executive Officers of American Computer companies that develop, build, and market information processing systems and software. It is interesting to note that all 13 CEOs are males. In a recent report dated January 12, 1993, generated by CSPP, there are several recommendations including development of technologies to guarantee privacy. There is no mention of developing strategies to prevent sexual harassment or any other form of abuse. This report is directed towards public policy makers, the new administration, and 103rd Congress.

Another forum is the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), a congressionally chartered non- profit organization. A center for information management has been formed within NAPA. The center's primary mission is to examine, understand, and influence the creation and use of information and related information technology and its impact on the government's way of doing business. The center brings together the best minds in the public and private sectors to discuss and analyze important issues in information management. This organization is in its embryonic stage. We should ensure that women's issues are represented in this center. If we can't influence our own government to address these issues we are in serious trouble.

First, it is important to identify those groups or organizations that are actively involved in setting or recommending policies. Second, we should focus our individual and collective energies on either directly influencing people in these organizations or demanding membership in these organizations ourselves.


Dizard, W. P. (1989). The Coming Information Age (3rd ed.). London: Longman Group Ltd.

Nagel (1993, January 13). "Quicktime displays its versatility." San Jose Mercury News, Sec. D, pg. 1

Sheffield, C. J., & Coll, W. P. (1989 Dec). "The invisible intruder: Women's experiences of obscene phone calls." Special Issue: Violence against women. Gender & Society, Vol 3(4) 483-488(Wayne, NJ, US).

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