20 years ago, Rimm’s study of online porn made the cover of Time Magazine and put the Net on a collision course with Congress. Then he disappeared.
“Hell hath no fury like the Internet scorned. Just ask Marty Rimm.”—The New York Times, July 17, 1995.
But the worst—by far—was the Cyberporn story that made the cover of Time 20 years ago, issued dated July 3, 1995.
Not that it was a bad piece of writing. Even from a distance of two decades—knowing, as Jeb Bush might put it, what I know now—the lead still works:
“Sex is everywhere these days—in books, magazines, films, television, music videos and bus-stop perfume ads. It is printed on dial-a-porn business cards and slipped under windshield wipers. It is acted out by balloon-breasted models and actors with unflagging erections, then rented for $4 a night at the corner video store. Most Americans have become so inured to the open display of eroticism—and the arguments for why it enjoys special status under the First Amendment—that they hardly notice it’s there.
“Something about the combination of sex and computers, however, seems to make otherwise worldly-wise adults a little crazy. [A couple of topical anecdotes were inserted here.] Suddenly the press is on alert, parents and teachers are up in arms, and lawmakers in Washington are rushing to ban the smut from cyberspace with new legislation—sometimes with little regard to either its effectiveness or its constitutionality.
“If you think things are crazy now, though, wait until the politicians get hold of a report coming out this week.”
The problem with the story, which I sensed as I was writing it but was too green, too ambitious, too scared of losing my cover slot to address, was the news hook—the “report coming out this week” that I’d pitched to the editors as a Time Magazine exclusive guaranteed to make a splash.
The report—an undergraduate research paper published in a law journal—made a splash all right, but not the kind that reflected well on me or the magazine.
It was immediately attacked from several quarters. By civil liberties groups who saw it as an assault on free speech. By academics who saw through its tissue thin methodology. By sociologists who disputed its most provocative thesis, duly reported in Time, that the market for online porn was driven by a demand for images that couldn’t be found in the average magazine rack: Pedophilia (nude photos of children), hebephilia (youths) and paraphilia—a grab bag of “deviant” material that includes images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with animals.
One Time researcher assigned to my story remembers the study as “one of the more shameful, fear-mongering and unscientific efforts that we ever gave attention to.”
The report was the reason I found myself—20 years later—knocking on the front door of a small red-shingled house in a low-rent corner of Westchester County, N.Y. At the front window, two small dogs were barking excitedly. On the other side of the door, I was pretty sure, was the study’s author.
His name was Marty Rimm, and he’d been missing for 20 years.
The ruckus that followed publication of Time’s Cyberporn cover has been well documented. The incident was newspaper and magazine fodder for much of the summer. It was assigned reading in journalism schools as an essay topic in ethics classes—invariably as an example of what not to do. Hotwired created the “Philip Elmer-DeWitt Award for Bad Internet Reporting,” for which I remain the only recipient.
Marty Rimm stuck around for a couple weeks, gave interviews to the New York Times and ABC News, then disappeared.
Nobody seemed to know what happened to him.
Not his classmates at Carnegie Mellon University, where he did his research, counting every piece of online erotica he could get his hands on.
Not the editors of the Georgetown Law Journal, which published his study, Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway, giving me and the magazine the news peg we needed.
Not Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, who cited Rimm’s findings as proof that raw porn on the Internet was on the rise and getting rawer.
Not Senator Chuck Grassley, who entered Rimm’s study into the Congressional Record.
Not Senators James Exon and and Slade Gordon, who peeked inside a folder of Rimm’s findings and co-sponsored the Communications Decency Act, the first attempt by Congress to regulate content on the newly commercialized Internet. (It was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton.)
Not Mike Godwin, staff counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who worked feverishly to discredit Rimm’s study and believes to this day it was a put-up job engineered by religious fundamentalists.
Godwin, best known on the Web as the originator of Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies, wrote a book about the two years he spent trying to “undo the damage” done by Rimm, Time Magazine and me. He joined forces with the ACLU and fought the Communications Decency Act all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately agreed that the act’s indecency provisions were unconstitutional because they didn’t permit parents to decide for themselves what material was acceptable for their children.
But back to Marty Rimm.
In his absence, that summer of 1995, a backstory emerged. On the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL), where a few thousand academics, journalists and Grateful Dead fans formed a lively social network in the early days of the Internet, a grassroots investigative team began looking into Rimm’s past.
They discovered that he’d grown up in Atlantic City surrounded by casinos and Donald Trump’s money. As a high school student he boasted that he had infiltrated the Playboy Hotel and Casino disguised as an Arab sheik. In 1983 he published the precursor to his porn paper: An exposé in the school newspaper about the growing problem of teenage gambling addiction. It included “a survey of 1,120 Atlantic City High School students [that] found that 64% have gambled in the casinos and that one in four accepts free drinks.” Despite protests from casino operators about the flaws in Rimm’s study, the New Jersey legislature raised the state’s gambling age from 18 to 21.
After a stint in the military, Rimm took a series of casino jobs: craps dealer, pit clerk, security guard. He took notes and began to write. He self-published a novel, An American Playground, about a “gifted young painter” who “experiences all the whirl and glitz” of casino nightlife in “the most graphic whorehouses of emotion in America.” He also developed an interest in online erotica. He wrote a how-to pamphlet: The Pornographer’s Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men, & Make Lots of Money. That work surfaced while the Congressional debate about Internet censorship was still raging. Rimm disappeared shortly afterward.
I spent the rest of the summer of ’95 in a defensive crouch, feeling like the most hated man on the Internet. My stories got slammed. My words got turned against me. A denial of service attack hit my e-mail account with so much spam it crashed my Internet provider’s servers. I stopped writing, left the tech beat, and spent 12 years as the magazine’s science editor before retiring to do what I do now: Write a blog for Fortune about Apple Inc.
Over the years I’d searched for Rimm on the Internet in a desultory way with no success. But in January, with the 20th anniversary of the cover approaching, I felt like I needed some closure. In January I started looking for him in earnest. Having hit a dead end on the major social networks and people-search sites—including the ones that take your credit card and never let go—I decided I needed professional help.
Then, before McBride got started, a clue fell out of the tree my Kickstarter campaign had shaken: Rimm’s new name, his AKA.
“He was ahead of his time,” says a Carnegie Mellon alum who knew Rimm back in the day. “He was one of the first to realize that the Net never forgets, so if you screw up really badly, the only way out is to change your name.”
Less than 24 hours after McBride received Rimm’s new name, the detective had two street addresses: Rimm’s place of business, a two-man financial planning service with an office in White Plains, N.Y.; and his home, the red-shingled house on whose front door I was knocking.
I had driven down early that morning from Western Massachusetts, where I live these days, to spend a day on the ground, looking for Rimm. First I parked outside his house for a couple hours, waiting for someone to get into the electric Prius charging in the driveway. Then I visited the White Plains office, where none of the principals ever seemed to be available. Before she got suspicious and clammed up a receptionist identified Rimm from his photograph.
Later that afternoon, I went back to the house and knocked again. The electric Prius was gone; a Toyota Corolla had taken its place. A package from Amazon addressed to Rimm’s new name was sitting on the welcome mat. The dogs were barking, glancing back at something behind them, and barking some more.
That’s when I sensed a presence on the other side of the door.
At that moment, for the first time, I put myself in Marty Rimm’s shoes. I could imagine how this scene might be playing out for him, with the dogs making their racket and me banging on the door.
I was starting to feel like a stalker. Rimm had suffered a public shaming and gone to elaborate lengths to leave the past behind. Who was I to expose him?
That’s when I decided not to disclose Marty Rimm’s new name. He has a right to be forgotten—at least by me.
I left a note and another business card and drove home. If the man who used to be Marty Rimm changes his mind, he knows how to reach me.