Computer underground Digest Wed Sept 13, 1995 Volume 7 : Issue 73 ISSN 1004-042X Editors:
Computer underground Digest Wed Sept 13, 1995 Volume 7 : Issue 73
Editors: Jim Thomas and Gordon Meyer (TK0JUT2@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU
Archivist: Brendan Kehoe
Shadow Master: Stanton McCandlish
Field Agent Extraordinaire: David Smith
Shadow-Archivists: Dan Carosone / Paul Southworth
Ralph Sims / Jyrki Kuoppala
CONTENTS, #7.73 (Wed, Sept 13, 1995)
File 1--Some Questions about the Rimm/Cyberporn Study
File 2--Cu Digest Header Info (unchanged since 19 Apr, 1995)
CuD ADMINISTRATIVE, EDITORIAL, AND SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION APPEARS IN
THE CONCLUDING FILE AT THE END OF EACH ISSUE.
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 1995 22:51:01 EDT
From: Jim Thomas
Subject: File 1--Some Questions about the Rimm/Cyberporn Study
SOME THOUGHTS ON CARNEGIE MELLON'S COMMITTEE OF INVESTIGATION
Jim Thomas / Department of Sociology Northern
13 September, 1995
Illinois University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
((BACKGROUND: As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University this
past year, 30 year old Martin Rimm published a research project in
the Georgetown Law Journal on "pornography" on the Net. Time
Magazine featured the project as a cover story in its July 3
issue. The project was attacked for intellectual and ethical
improprieties, and CMU has begun an investigation into the project.
What follows are just a few of the questions I had after following
the project and its media coverage for these past two months--jt))
The Martin Rimm "Cyberporn" study, while thoroughly discredited on
intellectual and other grounds, remains a problem for those involved
in it. CMU sources indicate that the CMU provost has formed a
committee with the faculty senate to investigate questions that have
been raised about the study's procedures and ethics. (See CuD #7.58
and 7.59; A complete background, including the full study and a
critique by Donna Hoffman and Tom Novack, can be found on the CuD
homepage links at http://www.soci.niu.edu/~cudigest).
Some might wonder why there exists a need to pursue an investigation
of a discredited undergraduate project. To some, it may even appear
that continued inquiry into its procedures and the background of
Rimm, its "principal investigator," constitute an unnecessary
witchhunt, reflecting a lynch-mob mentality.
Such a view is erroneous and short-sighted.
Continued questioning of the study is not an attempt to "disprove"
or minimize Rimm's "finding" that 83.5 percent of Usenet images are
"pornographic," to deny that there is sex on the Net, or to minimize
the very real concerns of parents and others about limiting
children's access to undesirable material.
An airing of the study and its procedures should be pursued for
several reasons. First, the results of the study continue to be used
uncritically, especially by those who would exaggerate the prevalence
of objectionable Internet material. Whether the figures approximate
reality is irrelevant. The issue is that there is no basis in *this*
study to give confidence in the figures. Normally, this would be no
more than an intellectual dispute to be resolved by additional
research. However, it is how the data were acquired and manipulated
that cause concern.
This leads to the second reason for pursuing questions about the
research. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that serious
ethical improprieties underlay the study. This, too, would normally
be an in-house matter best left to a University and the subjects
involved. However, at least some persons involved in the study turned
an intellectual exercise into a highly visible public media event. As
a consequence, the public has a right to address troubling questions
that subvert both the intellectual credibility and the procedures by
which claims were made and continue to be defended. Third, this is a
cyberspace issue. It's no secret that researchers have found
computer-mediated communication a rich source for ethnographic and
other data collection. The apparent ethical improprieties are
relevant to the broader intellectual community, as well as to the
on-line public, to the extent that they suggest several ways by which
scholars and others can go astray in violating basic human subjects
canons. Finally, if sloppy research based on questionable data and
practices produces claims that are used to subvert First Amendment
rights in cyberspace, and when that research has been explicitly
identified as the product of one of the leading U.S. research
institutions, that institution has the responsibility of assuring the
credibility of that which was done in its name.
Pursuing questions raised by the study is not, or at least ought not
become, a mechanism for public humiliation of the participants or an
attempt to try them in public. Instead, raising further questions
provides exactly what academic scholarship requires: An examination
of procedures and methods of public claims in a public forum in a way
that allows those expected to accept such claims an opportunity to
assess the credibility and biases of the researchers. To that extent,
as any good ethnographic scholar knows, questions about how data were
gathered, about scholars' potentially biasing background experiences,
or about interpretative procedures, are of direct relevance to the
public. As a consequence, the CMU Committee of Inquiry might consider
the following questions about the study as a way to facilitate
independent assessment of the research.
WHAT WAS THE "CMU/RIMM STUDY?"
Time Magazine's July 3, 1995, issue featured as a cover story a
Georgetown Law Journal article by Rimm ("Marketing Pornography on the
Information Superhighway"), that uncritically reported the study's
findings in a sensationalistic manner (One of the story's fuzzy
graphics depicted a nude male presumably copulating with his
computer). Although selective readers were given access to the study,
including Ralph Reed (the Executive Director of the Christian
Coalition), three journal commentators, Senator Charles Grassley, who
misrepresented the study's findings to hype his anti-pornography Bill
(S. 892), and Philip DeWitt, the Time writer who had access to the
study as an exclusive, others who attempted to obtain a copy were
refused. The reason: It was embargoed. Rimm claimed that the GLJ
embargoed it, but the GLJ claimed otherwise (see below).
The study purported to be an exhaustive analysis of "pornography" in
cyberspace, and it contained numerous methodological flaws and
demonstrably inaccurate claims (See the Hoffman and Novak critique).
Among the controversial aspects of the study was the implication that
it was a legitimate CMU-sponsored project. In fact, it was an
ambitious undergraduate research project. But, once the CMU/Rimm
connection was made, it became known as the "CMU study" in the media
and in Congress.
WAS THIS THE "CMU" STUDY?
Before the study appeared in Time or the GLJ, Rimm appeared on
Nightline discussing the "CMU study," Senator Grassley alluded to the
"CMU study" (and planned to have Rimm testify in a Congressional
hearing), and those supporting the study (including Ralph Reed and
Catherine McKinnon) referred to the "CMU study." However, a recent
call to Don Hale, Vice President for University Relations at CMU,
said that CMU itself never claimed that the study was done under the
auspices of CMU. "People were misinterpreting how we described the
study from the gitgo," he said. And, he does make a compelling case.
Hale explained that he often uses the term "CMU study" as a
convenient shorthand to describe research projects done by faculty.
"I never thought about the implications," he said, indicating that he
would take more cautious steps in the future. He was convincing, and
there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. But, his words do not
reflect the actions of others, including some CMU personnel.
When I spoke to several CMU personnel about the study in the first
week of July before the controversy broke, they explicitly and
unequivocally associated CMU with the study. There is often a thin
line between shorthand connotation and summary denotation, and to my
view, some CMU personnel crossed over that line.
Then, there is Rimm himself. In the study, he explicitly and
repeatedly refers to the study as the "CMU study". In his ABC
Nightline appearance, Rimm and others, including Ted Koppel, called
it the CMU study. The media, including the New York Times, called it
the CMU study. The commentators on the GLJ article called it the "CMU
Despite the resulting brouhaha, CMU did not disassociate from or
officially respond to the study, until it issued a cryptic press
release in Mid-July:
Carnegie Mellon University is responsible for the
integrity of research conducted at the university. As
a community of scholars, in which truth and integrity
are fundamental, the university generally examines
carefully issues raised concerning the propriety of
research conducted by members of the university
community, taking due care to protect the rights of
Provost Paul Christiano already has informally sought
and received advice from some faculty members about the
study conducted by undergraduate student Marty Rimm and
published by the Georgetown Law Journal. He will soon
form a committee of distinguished and knowledgeable
faculty to examine in more detail the issues that have
been raised about the study. The committee will
recommend the appropriate next steps, if any, that
should be taken relative to this study and, if
necessary, relative to policies on undergraduate
The release indicates that this was no longer accepted by the school
as the "CMU Study," but rather was now the work of "undergraduate
student Martin Rimm."
THE CMU INQUIRY
Later in July, CMU Provost Paul Christiano adhered to CMU policy in
forming a three-person Committee of Inquiry to investigate whether
there existed sufficient grounds to form a five-person Committee of
Investigation to address allegations of research impropriety. On
August 8, Provost Christiano issued the following memo:
The Committee of Inquiry, which was formed to conduct a
limited inquiry into allegations directed at the subject
research, now has completed its work. That committee has
recommended, in accordance with the above-cited policy, that
several allegations warrant the conduct of a thorough
investigation, through a five-member faculty Committee of
Investigation. This committee, to be formed jointly by me
and the leadership of the Faculty Senate, is expected to
submit its recommendations to me, to the president of the
university, to the leaders of the Faculty Senate, to the
dean of student affairs, and to the researchers themselves.
The specific recommendations that have been provided to me
by the Committee of Inquiry remain confidential, according
to the above-cited University policy. However, I expect the
Committee of Investigation to examine a full range of issues
relating to the article and to the research preceding it.
Until the Committee of Investigation has completed its work
to determine which, if any, allegations are valid, it would
be inappropriate for me to comment further on this matter.
Indeed, all those who believe in fairness and in due process
should take special care not to prejudge the conduct of
persons who have engaged in this or any other research.
While the well being of human participants, as well as the
search for truth, must always be essential guiding
principles, so also must be respect for the reputation and
academic freedom of researchers and for due process.
Carnegie Mellon University will continue to adhere to those
The committee will presumably ask a number of questions to address
public concerns about the study. Among the troublesome questions
include the following:
QUESTIONS FOR RIMM
Although the personal biography and life of a researcher can be and
often is of relevance to especially qualitative research, private
lives rarely are of significant relevance. This case is is an
exception. If, for example, a scholar has a history of deceit,
fabrication, or other behavior that raises questions about the
veracity of research, the private history related to such acts
In Rimm's case, there seems to be disturbing history of behavior
that would be of special concern to professionals assessing his
A few credibility-challenging examples include: His authorship of a
book listed in the Library of Congress records as: "How to Exploit
Women, Dupe Men, and Make lots of Money." There appears to be no
public copy available in the LoC, so only excerpts alledged to be
from the book are available. In CyberWire Dispatch, Brock Meeks cites
Into my mailbox flow excerpts of Marty's "how to" manual.
Here is a sample of his turgid prose, taken from the Usenet
posting, from a chapter on Anal Sex: "When searching for
the best anal sex images, you must take especial care to
always portray the woman as smiling, as deriving pleasure
from being penetrated by a fat penis into her most tender
crevice. The male, before ejaculation, is remarkably attuned
to the slightest discrepancy; he is as much focused on her
lips as on her anus. The slightest indication of pain can
make some men limp."
*QUESTION: Was this book used to entice the research subjects
(the sysops) to participate in the study?
"Books in Print" information reveals the following information:
AUTHORS: Rimm, Martin
Speranza, Carolyn; Illustrator
TITLE: The Pornographer's Handbook; How to Exploit
Women, Dupe Men, & Make Lots of Money
PUBLISHER: Carnegie; 03/1995
EDITION: Orig. Ed.
It has been reported on The Well that "Carnegie Press" and Rimm
share the same address and phone, among other things. One close
observer of the study raised the following questions:
*QUESTION: In what states did Martin Rimm register "Carnegie Press"
as a corporation? Did he do so in Pennsylvania? In New Jersey? In
*QUESTION: If Rimm registered "Carnegie Press" as a corporation in
April 1994, or before that date, is there an ethical issue raised by
his intention to profit from grant-funded research on nonconsenting
*QUESTION: Is there an ethical issue raised by the choice of the
name "Carnegie Press"?
Was the book satire, was it a methodological access key, or was
it intended as a serious marketing guide? It's hard to tell,
but the following post from Rimm to an anonymous correspondent
raises further questions:
Date: Sun, 18 Dec 1994 22:02:01 -0500 (EST)
From: Martin Rimm
To some extent, but the truth is I am ahead of the
pornographers. However, with mainstream pornographers
moving on-line, some of the best software engineers in the
country are now working for the pornography industry, and I
expect within a year or two they will leap ahead of me.
Recently, Kenneth Guarino, of Southe Point Enterprises, the
largest adult video distributor in the country, hired a
team from Microsoft.
Once my study is published, it will be obvious to them why
such research is useful. In a two hour video, or magazine
with 100 pictures, pornographers never knew what the
customers really wanted. Now they can find out. Personally,
I'm getting out of the pornography business, as I want to
move on to other subjects on the net.
*QUESTION: Which side of the fence was Rimm on?
Rimm appears to be no stranger to controversy involving deception.
Press reports indicate that, at age 16, Rimm posed as an
Arab sheik to "infiltrate" an Atlantic City casino to "expose"
teenage gambling. A New Jersey news story raises further questions.
From the Atlantic City Press, Aug. 30:
CYBERPORN RESEARCHER LINKED TO A.C. PRANKS
* Marty Rimm, author of a controversial study of pornography
on the Internet, was investigated by gaming officials for
an alleged publicity stunt gone haywire and other hoaxes
involving the Taj Mahal casino.
By RAY ROBINSON
The Press of Atlantic City Online
Marty Rimm, author of a widely publicized study of pornography
on computer networks, was suspected by state investigators of
pulling two creative -- and potentially expensive -- pranks on
the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in 1990, according to
documents reviewed by The Press.
Although such behavior of itself does not necessarily subvert
credibility, it does raise a subsequent question of whether similar
methods were used to gain access to a research setting or produce a
written product that is embargoed prior to publication in a non-peer
*QUESTION: Was the access to confidential information and other data
from sysops or other sources gathered under pretense?
Rimm states explicitly in his study that his "research team" did not
generally reveal to research subjects, the sysops, that they were
being studied (GLJ, 1995: 1878). CyberWire's Brock Meeks wrote:
How did Marty pull this off? Adult BBS operators aren't
known for their openness and trusting attitudes, in general.
When I asked Marty how he was able to do what had taken me
years to do -- develop sources inside this network of adult
BBS operators --he said: "[Y]ou didn't have powerful
software which you could use to convince them that you
indeed had something to offer. What took you years I could
do in anywhere from five minutes to two months. You'll have
to figure the rest out."
*QUESTION: Did Rimm lie to gain access to sysops and their data?
In his introduction, Rimm lists more than a score of professors,
administrators, and staff as part of the "research team." Some have
disassociated from the study or indicated that they had little, if
any, significant role in it. What role did the listed members of the
research team play? Where they full collaborating participants in a
"research team" as he implies? Rimm's primary advisor, CMU Professor
Marvin Sirbu, in a letter to EFF staff counsel Mike Godwin, even
alluded to several of the professors, presumably two of whom are at
the University of Oregon and one of whom is a Dean, as collaborators
as a means to justify the legitimacy of the study.
Consider the following:
From: Martin Rimm
Subject: Re: More Censorship
Date: Fri, 4 Nov 1994 00:31:15 -0500
The team of researchers consists of seven professors, three
deans, four lawyers, two lobbyist groups, six undergraduate
research assistants, three doctoral students, three
programmers, and an art instructor.
Date: Tue, 4 Apr 1995 21:25:59 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Fwd: INTERNET ADULT BBS STUDY
We appreciate your interest. We are making every effort to
get you a complete copy of the study before publication. In
the meantime, we would greatly appreciate an independent
check of our legal notes, which the journal helped us with.
(No one on our team is a lawyer). We need to return our
final edits to the journal on Thursday, April 14. If before
then you have a chance to review the attached, your comments
would be most appreciative.
It is interesting that in the first public post, Rimm listed four
lawyers as part of the research team. In the April passage, Rimm
indicates that no lawyers are members of the team. Of itself, this
may seem unimportant until one asks whether this was, in fact, an
authentic research TEAM.
*QUESTION: Who, precisely, was on the research team, and what was
*QUESTION: Was this a legitimate research team, or was it simply
window-dressing used to enhance the study's credibility?
*QUESTION: Was, as Rimm claims, the data actually collected by a team,
or was he, himself, the primary data-gatherer, using the language of
*QUESTION: If this was, in fact, a legitimate research team
comprised of administrators and faculty, then what was their role in
the demonstrable deception? If this research was in fact a true
collaborative effort, would that not then also mean that that a
score of CMU personnel are complicit in demonstrably unethical
In the study, Rimm claims to have talked to a number of sysops, both
by voice and e-mail. Robert Thomas, sysop of Amateur Action BBS,
currently serving a sentence in a Federal penitentiary for making
available adult material on his system that, while not illegal in his
own state of California was illegal in Tennessee, was one of Rimm's
research subjects. Rimm's account of events does not correspond with
e-mail corespondence between Rimm and Thomas provided by Thomas's
wife (CuD 7.59).
*QUESTION: Did Rimm in fact communicate with all the sysops as he
*QUESTION: Did Rimm's communication with the sysops indicate the
kind of ethical impropriety that the released e-mail between he
and Robert Thomas suggests?
*QUESTION: Why doesn't the Committee of Investigation talk with
Robert Thomas in order to ascertain how data from AA BBS were
Early attempts to obtain a copy of the study from Rimm or the
Georgetown Law Journal were barred by claims that the study was
embargoed. In a December 18, 1994 post to Mike Godwin, Rimm claimed
that the GLJ embargoed the study. In posts on The Well, a popular
public access system in California, Time's Philip DeWitt claimed
that he had an exclusive with Rimm. Kathy Ruemler, current
editor-in-chief of the GLJ, wrote in a public Usenet post on
V. RUMOR: TIME was restricted from having the study
independently reviewed by an agreement with Law Journal.
FACT: The Law Journal had no such agreement with TIME.
Isn't TIME the one who referred to it as an exclusive?
*QUESTION: Somebody seems to be lying. Who?
An argument could be made that Rimm's advisor, Marvin Sirbu, and
not Rimm, ought bear responsibility for improprieties in the
study. After all, an advisor is ultimately responsible for
assuring that proper ethical and methodological procedures are
followed. In this case, such a judgment might be premature.
In 1984, Rimm was involved in a study of high school gambling with
Henry Lesieur, then a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins, and Bob
Klein, reportedly a high school counsellor. Lesieur apparently was
drawn to Rimm by his infiltration of a casino at 16: "That just
intrigued me," he said.
The study involved giving students in five high schools
questionnaires. Rimm distributed them in one high school, Lesieur
said. Was Rimm sufficiently apprised of ethical issues a decade ago
such that he should be aware of appropriate behavior now? Lesieur
could not say, but he observed:
We had meetings and we went through the (ethical) protocols.
People didn't have to respond, it was totally anonymous.
It (the study) went through human subjects, he was part
of the process, and he followed the protocols.
Although Rimm was a third author on a paper, Lesieur indicated that
Rimm, in fact, did no writing.
Now, it's unreasonable to expect a college undergraduate to fully
understand the nuances of research ethics, let alone recall them a
decade later. But, it's not unreasonable to expect that, given this
apparent background in research, Rimm would not be aware that there are
ethical protocols. Therefore, those who see Rimm as a "victim" of
inadequate supervision have a weak case: Rimm was in a position to
know that there are guidelines for protecting human subjects and that
his own methodological descriptions indicates that he violated them.
However, this still leaves several questions that Professor Sirbu
might clear up.
QUESTIONS FOR SIRBU
Although Sirbu was quoted in a July New York Times story as saying
that he never saw the final article that was submitted to GLJ, and
that it was not the report he would have written, it is clear that
he was closely involved with Rimm throughout the study. At issue
here isn't the final article, but how Rimm could continue to collect
data in ways that raise serious questions about why the advisor,
who was professedly close to the study, did not engage in
In November correspondence with Mike Godwin, Sirbu claimed that he
had no problem with the methodology and would be glad to discuss it.
But, Sirbu seemed well-aware of the study long before that,
as a memo to several CMU faculty and administrators indicates:
Date: Tue, 27 Sep 1994 23:11:43 -0400 (EDT)
From: Marvin Sirbu
To: Erwin Steinberg ,
Michael Caldwell Murphy ,
Subject: Martin Rimm's research
Cc: Jessie Barbour Ramey ,
I understand that you have been in touch with Martin Rimm
regarding his research. Since Martin is currently working
on this for credit under me, I have asked him if he would
permit me to be included in any meetings that you may
I have been meeting regularly with Martin since last Spring,
and believe that he is nearing completion on a
ground-breaking study that makes an important scholarly
contribution. He has developed some very interesting
methodological approaches, and has amassed a remarkable
database of information on his chosen subject matter. As
Martin and I have discussed, there is still much to do in
interpreting the data.
The bulk of his data collection focuses on privately
operated Adult Bulletin Board Systems (BBS's) offering
sexually oriented imagery. He has also examined partial
data on the availability and consumption of such imagery at
CMU from the Internet, although this data is not central to
We have had numerous discussions as to the most appropriate
venue for publishing this work since it may appeal to groups
as diverse as those concerned with telecommunications
policy, law, mass communications, marketing science, or
sociology of sexual deviance. We have also been discussing
potential sources of external research support. Our most
recent thinking has been to produce a Working
Paper/Technical Report that could be disseminated from CMU
pending determination of the most appropriate avenue for
Because of the subject matter, this research could provide
fodder for everyone from the Kinsey Institute to Jerry
Falwell to Andrea Dworkin, as have previous scholarly
studies in this field.
I might not have chosen myself to raise these issues via a
message directly to the President, but sooner or later this
study will come out and I suspect there will be significant
interest among the press. It is certainly appropriate that
CMU be prepared. Martin and I both concur that the way the
research is publicized should be handled with great care,
but I know that he is anxious, after working on this for
more than a year, to get something out before he starts
applying to graduate schools this fall.
Among other things, Sirbu reveals his knowledge of Rimm's access to
"availability and consumption" of the Usenet readership habits of
CMU system users. It is well-established that users have a reasonable
expectation of privacy. Sometimes, fulfilling administrative duties
requires system administrators to monitor use, files, or other
material that a user intends to be private. However, sometimes such
monitoring raises questions. In the Rimm study, for example, users'
Usenet newsgroup configuration files were systematically tabulated.
Although reports differ on whether systems engineers or third parties
monitored the files, it is clear that, according to the Rimm study,
data on individuals were collected and compared, and the aggregate
results then made public. It remains unclear whether, despite the
serious appearance of impropriety, any breaches occurred. However, the
question is of sufficient import to be addressed:
*QUESTION: Did the acquisition of individual user information as
described in Rimm's methodology, actually occur? If so, is such
acquisition consistent with the ethical guidelines on human subjects?
If Sirbu were as close to Rimm's study as his public pronouncements
and private correspondence indicate, he surely would have, or should
have, known of the practices Rimm employed.
*QUESTION: "What did Sirbu know and when did he know it?"
As Sirbu should know, "research team" has a special connotation among
scholars. A research team is not a casual circle of people who may
occasionally interact. Sirbu's professed close relationship with Rimm
and involvement in Rimm's research would give him knowledge of
whether a "research team," as the term is conventionally employed by
reputable scholars, did in fact exist. Sirbu's claim (above) that
some high-level faculty "collaborated" with Rimm adds credence to,
and perpetuates the image of, an established group of professionals
well-integrated into a research project directed by Rimm as
Given the fact the some "team" members were unaware that they were
team members or have denied that they were members at all, one cannot
help but suspect that the public is being deceived into believing
that the study is more credentialed than it actually is.
*QUESTION: Can Sirbu explain precisely what the "research team"
members did to justify the label?
*QUESTION: If there was, in fact, no "research team" in the
conventional use of the term, why did Sirbu allow the fiction to
Perhaps the most important question Sirbu could address is the
attempt to acquire funding for Rimm's project. It appears that
Sirbu's attachment to the study included attempts to ride the funding
gravy train by cashing in on Rimm's methodology.
In November, Sirbu approached EFF's Mike Godwin to solicit EFF
support for the project:
Date: Mon, 7 Nov 1994 22:05:16 -0500 (EST) From: Marvin
Sirbu To: email@example.com Subject:
Your visit to CMU
As you may have gleaned from reading about the events at
CMU, I have been working with Martin Rimm on a study of
the availability and consumption of sexually explicit
imagery on Adult BBS systems and, to a lesser extent, on
Usenet. Xxxx Yyyy suggested that EFF might be interested
in the work we've been doing. Among other things, we
have data which could be analyzed to show the geographic
distribution of consumers of adult BBS systems. Such
data might be useful in countering or confirming
assertions that "community standards" in places like
Memphis are different from other regions of the country.
I'll give you a call when we are both back in our
Neither EFF's mission nor resources allow for such support, and the
solicitation was rejected. But, federal funding remained a
David Banks, a CMU statistics professor, provided some
technical guidance for Rimm. According to Banks, in early November,
1994, he, Sirbu, and Rimm met to discuss what might be done with the
paper. Rimm, reports Banks, needed money, because he sunk some of
his own funds into the project. According to Banks:
Also, Martin was aware that the Department of Justice
had cut down AA BBS and seized their log files. And that
info should contain names, log files, and it seemed
reasonable to suspect that DOJ would have that set
analyzed and that they would pay money for it.
The grant attempted to link our interests with DoJ
According to Banks, the proposal had four research goals:
1) A summary of the statistics of "pornography" traffic that
would identify the proportion of BBSes with a high
percentage of material that might be worth prosecuting;
2) Consumption and usage trends over time: If pornography or
pedophilia increases, then it would indicate that the BBS
is trying to cultivate that market;
3) Information on individual downloads and covariance of
user preferences that would correlate which types of
files are most-likely to be associated other downloaded files;
4) "Placing it in the space of adult bulletin boards; adult
BBSes have different personalities, characteristics, and
specialties...who is the worst offender on pedophilia?"
This, Banks explained, would allow DoJ to distribute its
prosecutorial resources more effectively.
Rimm was not listed as a co-principal investigator on the second
round of grant submission, Banks explained, because DoJ would run
the grant through CMU, which would be more difficult if Rimm were
not a student. However, Rimm was written in as a consultant,
according to Banks.
Banks said that he often expressed his concern with ethical issues,
both orally and in writing, and in July, 1995, he withdrew from the
project because of these concerns.
Why is the grant significant?
The grant application raises serious ethical questions for Sirbu and
Rimm. One fundamental canon of accepted ethical procedures is that
researchers do nothing to put their subjects at risk (see CuD 7.58).
Yet, that is precisely what this grant application would do.
In his methodology, Rimm explains that he selected BBSes that were
either the largest and most active "pornography" distributors, or
that appeared to be aggressively moving into the "pornography" market
(GLJ, 1995: 1876-77). If Banks's summary of the DoJ grant proposal is
accurate, these BBSes are precisely those that the grant was designed
to help prosecute, because they constitute the population that Rimm
claimed to study.
That Rimm and Sirbu then submitted a grant to the DoJ that could be
used to bust the very people who were his subjects goes beyond any
breach of research ethics that I can recall, ever, in the social
sciences. This is not a minor lapse of ethics or an error in
judgment. It is a fundamental violation of the most basic principles
of the treatment of human subjects.
Sirbu acknowledges that he was not only fully aware of Rimm's
methodology, but that he would defend it. Hence, he was not unaware
of the population of BBSes from which Rimm drew his data. From the
existing evidence, it is clear that Sirbu was the driving force
behind the DoJ grant that would put those subjects at severe risk. In
fact, the grant was *DESIGNED* to put those subjects at risk.
*QUESTION: How does Sirbu explain what appears to be a sanctionable
violation of ethics?
*QUESTION: In the (presumably required) Human Subjects application
for CMU, did Sirbu fully apprise the Human Subjects review committee
that, while there may be no "human subjects" in the proposed DoJ
grant study, the research was designed to put at risk subjects of a
previous (SURG) CMU funding of which he was the supervisor?
There is a curious footnote relevant to the grant application. In
the GLJ article, Rimm devotes considerable space to describing
Amateur Action BBS, and calls the sysop, Robert Thomas, the Marquis
de Cyberspace (GLJ: 1912). The propriety of the GLJ discussion has
been discussed elsewhere (eg, CuD 7.58). What has not been discussed
is Rimm's relationship with this research subject. Mike Godwin
contacted Thomas's wife, and reports part of the response:
That Martin Rimm was a member of the Amateur Action BBS,
that he quarrelled publicly and privately with Robert and
Carleen Thomas about how they ran their BBS (among other
things, he wanted them to change the way their BBS software
kept track of downloads), that his messages to them after
they refused to comply with his "suggestions" grew angry
and threatening, that he declared publicly that he would
not renew his membership at Amateur Action, and that he
*did* renew his membership in February of this year.
Godwin also revealed that Thomas's wife produced the printout of a
message from Rimm to Thomas in which which Rimm tells Thomas how
much he admires him and how he hopes to be his "friend forever."
In July, Godwin asked Thomas's wife if there were any information
in her records pertaining to Rimm. Godwin summarized it on
For example, his application for a renewal
of his AABBS membership lists the same street address as
that of the "Carnegie Press." A different phone number,
though -- this one doesn't get you that weird message from
the phone company when you call it. Instead, it just rings.
Credit card number with (as I recall) an April 96
expiration date. Purchase on February 17 of a "six month"
membership, which, according to Carleen, actually means
he'll be current until August 17, 1995.
Rimm first solicited membership in Amateur Action BBS in
May of 1994. This is interesting since he's told at least
one person that he didn't even know Robert Thomas's name
until July of '94 when Thomas was convicted on obscenity
charges in Memphis. Since the application from Rimm used in
May of 1994 has Robert Thomas's name and address listed at
the top, this seems unlikely.
Want to know the best thing about the '94 application form?
It was *mailed* in. It's filled out in Rimm's handwriting.
If the records are accurate, Rimm, now involved in a funded study
designed to facilitate prosecution of active "pornographic" BBSes,
renewed his membership on the BBS that he described as the "market
leader in adult pornography" (GLJ, 1854).
Given Sirbu's professed close association with Rimm and the study's
methodology, it is inconceivable that he was not aware of how the BBS
data were collected.
*QUESTION: Why did Sirbu not intervene to assure that ethical
procedures were followed, given the evidence that they were not?
*QUESTION: Did Sirbu himself conceal information about unethical data
There are so many questions that CMU's Committee of Investigation
could ask that only a portion can be suggested here. Whatever the
answers to the above questions, it is clear that something rather
unacceptable occurred in the conduct of this research. The visibility
of the study and the use of the "findings" by policy-makers, which
was an explicit intent of the study, require a thorough airing of
AN AFTER THOUGHT
Here's why I continue to be concerned with the Rimm "Cyberporn" study
and Carnegie Mellon's handling of the investigation of it.
I teach research methods. I teach methods to sociology students in a
senior capstone methodology course. I teach methods to graduate
students in a seminar that draws students from several disciplines.
In these courses, I include a strong ethical component. I'm not a
dogmatic ethical purist, and I recognize the difficulty of walking
the thin line between "ought" and "ought not." But, there are two
fundamental principles I emphasize to students: 1) Always protect
research subjects from any harm that your research may cause, and 2)
Never deceive or lie to research subjects. It appears that not all
at CMU share these precepts.
Tonight I began the ethical component of the graduate methods
seminar. The course is comprised of Masters and Doctoral students
and Faculty. Each of the students has a topic, derived either as a
course project or from their thesis/dissertation work. One student
described a project that required "infiltration," deception of
informants, and role-playing to secure the confidence of subjects.
I thought of Rimm's study and the ethical message it would convey to
this student: Research that specifies deceit and leads to harm is not
only acceptable, but publishable in a reputable journal. "If they
can do it at CMU, why can't we do it at NIU?"
What can I say to the students and faculty about "real world" ethical
behavior? What can I say to the student who argues that it may be
acceptable to lie to subjects for the purpose of data gathering? How
can I explain the proper role of a faculty research supervisor if a
faculty advisor at a major research institution violates fundamental
ethical precepts and the school seems to condone it?
If Carnegie Mellon University remains silent on the questions raised,
it will be complicit in a standard of research behavior that simply
cannot be condoned. How CMU responds to the individuals involved is
an internal matter that hopefully will be handled with compassion.
However, this does not preclude an explicit and unequivocal
statement, derived from a thorough investigation, that disavows both
the Rimm study and the research model on which it is based.
Date: Sun, 19 Apr 1995 22:51:01 CDT
From: CuD Moderators
Subject: File 2--Cu Digest Header Info (unchanged since 19 Apr, 1995)
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