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April 17, 2001 05:15am
Porn company sues to Webcast execution
Source: ZDNet News
by: Lisa M. Bowman

On May 16, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be executed for killing 168 people six years ago.

Right now, only bombing victims, their families and select journalists will be allowed to watch the event live.

But Entertainment Media--a company that offers Voyeurdorm.com and Erotixmall.com--wants to broaden that audience by Webcasting the event live to millions of Internet users who fork over $1.95 a pop for the privilege. The company has sued the Justice Department (news - web sites) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons for the right to do so.

At a hearing Tuesday, a federal court in Indianapolis will hear arguments from both sides over whether to allow the Webcast. Although the debate over broadcasting executions is not new, this case marks the first time an Internet company has sued for those rights. Still, Entertainment Media's quest to show an execution live on the Internet to a broad audience looks like an uphill battle.

"I don't think it will happen," said Brenda Bowser, a spokeswoman for the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty news and data. "To date we haven't seen court support for broadcasting executions, although that could change with this case."

Numerous TV stations and even talk show host Phil Donahue have sued to record proceedings in the death chambers--for a live or later broadcast--but none so far has succeeded.

It's not the first time a Web site has offered content designed to draw viewers by shocking them. In 1998, Ourfirstime.com lured people with promises they could watch two teens lose their virginity--though the event was canceled after the "teens" admitted they were paid actors who were no strangers to sex. Other sites have proposed showing suicides and other disturbing acts.

However, the broadcast of an execution raises important questions about the death penalty and the rules surrounding it, which severely limit who is allowed to watch. McVeigh himself has asked that his execution be broadcast.

The free speech argument
As its predecessors have done in the past, Entertainment Media is framing the debate in terms of free speech.

"The public has a right to know what goes on," said Derek Newman, the attorney representing Entertainment Media. "The press has a First Amendment right to convey information."

What's more, the DOJ already has agreed to broadcast the event live via closed-circuit television to Oklahoma City, so bombing victims and their relatives can watch. Newman said that decision should help his client's cause because until now, one of the government's major arguments has been that the mere existence of cameras threatens security.

"We'd happily accept a government feed," Newman said.

The attorney said that the other content broadcast through Entertainment Media, which some people may find less than savory, is irrelevant. Voyeurdorm.com and Dudedorm.com feature exhibitionist coeds in various states of undress. Voyerlounge.com promises "up skirt" and "dressing room" cams.

But Newman said the First Amendment does not discriminate between a so-called legitimate news organization and an entertainment site when it comes to conveying information. Moreover, he thinks a court victory for Entertainment Media would mean that traditional news outlets also could Webcast the execution. However, major news sites have yet to jump into this debate.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons refused to comment for this story. Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites), when unveiling details of the closed-circuit broadcast, did not address Webcasting, saying only that "federal regulations prohibit any recording of the execution. Therefore, any closed-circuit transmission will be instantaneous and contemporaneous."

Other concerns among Webcasting critics include worries that someone could hack in and alter the transmission or obtain a recording of the event that could zip around the Internet. Ashcroft said the closed-circuit transmission would use "the latest encryption technology" to prevent someone from stealing it.

Then there's the issue of charging for Webcasts--a move Entertainment Media says will ensure that children don't watch. It plans to give proceeds to bombing victims.

Slapping on the price tag

Steven Brill, CEO of Brill's Content magazine and founder of Court TV, has long favored putting cameras in courtrooms and death chambers. But he said Entertainment Media's decision to charge makes the case for televising executions more difficult.

"Someone is selling tickets to an execution. What about selling popcorn, too?" Brill wrote in an e-mail interview.

Brill added that the Internet doesn't really introduce anything new to the debate, but Entertainment Media's efforts once again highlight the controversy over public access to execution.

"It simply become a debate over who should get to watch. Just the families of dead victims? Those injured? Which relatives? Why not everyone in Oklahoma City? Well, then why not everyone else in the country who was traumatized by the bombing?"

The court will make a decision sometime after Tuesday's hearing.

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