Is it sex or is it art?

Is it sex, or is it art? By Janelle Brown. In Austria, right-wingers take aim at a Net arts group for peddling porn. But maybe they've just got the wrong URL.


Janelle Brown
August 6, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Like thousands of other online porn purveyors, the site Sex.net -- at http://www.sex.net -- serves up members-only smut. Operated by a British Virgin Islands company called Ocean Fund International, Sex.net promises only the finest "100% Pure Raunchy Nasty Sex" at $25 a month.

Halfway across the world, a public-access Internet art space called Public Netbase nestles in a baroque building in the middle of the historic museum district in Vienna, Austria. Besides teaching introductory Internet classes and providing Net access for artists, the nonprofit routinely hosts technology conferences for a network of European academics and creatives. Here, you can find author Mark Dery debating "Metaphor as Illness," or cyberfeminist Sadie Plant discussing "Binary Sexes, Binary Codes."

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The two groups are worlds apart, to say the least. But thanks to the Freedom Party -- a growing right-wing party in Austria accused of Nazi sympathies -- and an unlucky choice of names for Public Netbase's most recent conference, Public Netbase is under siege: The Freedom Party says the organization is running a porn network out of Sex.net, and the citizens of Austria are helping pay for it.

In the lazy heat of a European summer that has been filled with high-profile child pornography controversies and arrests, this strange scandal has riled up the European network of technology theorists who fear cultural censorship from the growing right wing -- and an Internet whitewashed by techno-ignorant politicians.

Public Netbase was founded by Marie Ringler and Konrad Becker in 1994 to offer cheap public Net access for artists. Four years later, Public Netbase has 1,000 members, who use its computers and Web terminals for their creative projects. The organization teaches technology workshops, hosts electronic music lounges and throws bimonthly seminars on social technology issues -- with titles like "Infobody Attack" and "Robotronika" -- that draw academics and thinkers from around the world.

In May, Public Netbase hosted a month of discussions about sexual discourse and the Internet, headlined by a host of colorful luminaries. Pro-porn feminist Cherie Matrix lectured on fantasy and role-playing in online dating. Sultry San Francisco dominatrix Midori talked about how the Net has liberated radical sexuality, rounding off her talk with an S&M performance. Media artist Christina Gvstl launched her Web site sex.t0.or.at, a guide to intelligent smut, with a spoken-word performance involving blindfolds and cigarettes.

Risqué stuff, perhaps -- but Public Netbase received only positive feedback. "Rather than leaving it to the tabloid press to go on about how the search engines have 'sex' as the top keyword being used, we thought discussion could be more enlightened," explains Public Netbase founder Konrad Becker. "It wasn't necessarily controversial. Everything was very ordinary -- it was like a regular crowd of people who were politically, culturally interested artists."

Which is why Becker and the other Public Netbase members were so shocked when, six weeks later, on July 7, Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider gave a speech in parliament insisting that Public Netbase was running a porn network. The problem: Public Netbase's May conference had been titled "sex.net: Sex, Lies, and the Internet." To the Freedom Party, that seemed to mean that Public Netbase was running the porn Web site at http://www.sex.net.

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"We have proof," Haider said in a press conference a few days later -- waving a folder full of "porn" he said was created by Public Netbase and professing his shock.

What "proof" he might have baffles Public Netbase, whose founders deny even the remotest involvement with the Sex.net site -- and the Internic logs and the Sex.net Web page both attribute site ownership to Ocean Fund International in the Virgin Islands. It seemed to be a colossal misunderstanding.

But the Freedom Party doesn't seem to want to let it go and is demanding that Public Netbase pay back 900,000 schillings ($100,000) in government grants it received in the last four years. The party hopes to score political points by capitalizing on Europe's hysteria over Internet porn, and Public Netbase is a convenient target.

The Freedom Party, or FPO, is Austria's far-right wing political party. The party positions itself as populist, but opponents have called the FPO fascist, xenophobic, even neo-Nazi. They point to the FPO's anti-foreigner policy, Haider's Nazi father and his public statements that Hitler "had a sound employment policy in the Third Reich" and that former SS officers were "decent people."

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But the Freedom Party is rapidly ascending in Austria, having taken 28 percent of the vote in last year's election -- growing primarily at the expense of the leading liberal Social Democrat Party. Young, photogenic and dynamic, Haider is considered a viable contender when the next chancellor is elected in 1999. The far-right party under Haider is tapping into current Austrian fears -- incoming waves of cheap Eastern European labor, Austria's loss of economic power -- and has launched an extensive marketing campaign to target younger and working-class Austrians.

And one of the biggest scares in Europe right now is child pornography. Two major European child porn rings have been uncovered in the last eight months, and all of Europe is astir about last month's murder-and-pedophilia bust. An Austrian Internet service provider was taken to court last month because a pedophile used it to post messages. And an executive at German Compuserve was recently convicted of trafficking in child pornography -- making him personally liable for the pornographic materials that others distributed via Compuserve.

So the Freedom Party is raising a "protect the children" platform, pursuing family-oriented Austrian voters by accusing the current government of funding pornographic materials. Not surprisingly, Haider followed up his condemnation of Public Netbase with an announcement that he was starting a nationwide petition to stop child abuse -- even though his party's original target, the porn site www.sex.net, didn't traffic in child porn. He also demanded that Social Democratic State Secretary for the Arts Peter Wittman step down, since Public Netbase is funded by his department -- Austria's equivalent of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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"From the releases that they made, [we know] the party was monitoring us at the time of the May event, but they decided to wait for a strategic time to bring it up," says Becker. "The party timed it with the child abuse headlines in two different cases, and ... some changes in Austrian child abuse laws. They brought it together and mixed it up, and as their 'big big scandal' they used Public Netbase."

After the surprise attack, the Freedom Party's enemies were quick to come to Public Netbase's defense. Freedom Party officials "can't even decide if someone is taking a critical position on porn, or if they are actually a provider of pornography," Green Party cultural spokeswoman Madeleine Petrovic said. Wittman also defended himself in public statements: "It's black and white that the Freedom Party's accusations are the result of confusion with a commercial erotic Web site."

Freedom Party General Secretary Peter Westenthaler responded with an open letter to Social Democrat leader Andreas Rudas. This time, he referred to pages within the http://sex.t0.or.at sex guide -- which include pictures of dominatrixes, dildos and video footage from the performances at the sex.net conference -- as being "pornography." "You've either never seen the content available on these Web pages, or the Social Democrats are supporting pornography on the Net," wrote Westenthaler. "If you want to tell someone else this fairy tale of 'misunderstanding,' or if you really believe this to be true, maybe you haven't chosen the right job."

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While the politicians debate, Public Netbase is left waiting to see what will happen when parliament reconvenes in September -- whether the group will be forced to pay back their grants and go bankrupt. (Now that it's August, much of Europe has shut down for vacation -- in fact, no one from the Freedom Party was available to comment for this article, a receptionist said, since the entire office was closed for two weeks.)

In some ways, the dilemma of Public Netbase mirrors the fear of online pornography that has captured the minds of conservative Americans in recent years; European politicians, like Americans, are starting to opine that there's a need for Communications Decency Act-style legislation on the Internet. Much of the child pornography hysteria that has swept Europe in recent months has placed the Internet at the core of the problem, and politicians across Europe are clamoring for some kind of "Internet police."

But while American digerati respond quickly to potential Net censorship with protests and press releases and pixelated blue ribbons, the European technology community has been slow to figure out what to do.

In Europe, unlike the United States, there is a strong international network of technology arts centers -- such as Public Netbase, Backspace in London, the Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam and similar centers in Belgrade, Berlin and Eastern Europe -- that serve as homes for much of the theoretical and artistic dialogue of European techno-thinkers. The Nettime mailing list is the glue that brings many of these groups together. But so far, letters of support are the only response to the attacks on Netbase that these communities have mustered.

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"The culture of critique doesn't work with the fight against censorship," says Pit Schultz, a German founder of Nettime. Rather than focusing on changing economics or politics -- which, of course, vary from country to country across Europe -- he says the European Net community is more theory-oriented: "We speak about cultural politics here, the general role of totalitarian ideology of markets vs. a slow redefinition of the left."

But Ars Electronica, the influential arts-technology conference held in Austria, is just a month away, and the issue of Public Netbase is bound to come up. Geert Lovink, one of the Dutch founders of Nettime, is hoping for protests in support of Netbase at the event. He says he's concerned that a right-wing Net backlash in Austria might ripple out into other European countries with growing rightist movements (like Italy, France, Belgium and Denmark).

"Legislatures are looking for all kinds of incidents throughout Europe, to create new legislation that relates to the Internet across Europe. They need incidents -- they need smaller controversies," says Lovink. "This is what we are very much afraid of long term -- not that Public Netbase will be closed, but that higher up in Austria and Europe, they'll say that the Internet thing is all about child pornography."

While they wait for parliament to reconvene, and their fate to be decided by politicians who have very little knowledge about the Internet, the founders of Public Netbase are doing what they can: They are collecting statements from technology institutions across Europe, and have filed a lawsuit against the Freedom Party to demand damages for defamation.

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If nothing else, says Becker, this whole debacle shows how much need there really is for what Public Netbase does: More Europeans need to learn more about what the Internet really is, why online rights matter -- and why free sexual expression online is not necessarily child pornography.

"It's unfortunate, but only a small segment of the population in Europe is involved with Net politics -- most are just tech-heads or intellectuals," says Becker. "That's part of what we are trying to do here at Netbase, to start some kind of consciousness building about politics and the Internet ... [to show] that the Internet is not just a Mickey Mouse tool for kids and pornographers."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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