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French Authorities Fear Computerized Phone May Have Gone Too Far

September 8, 1987

PARIS (AP) _ A computerized telephone called the Minitel has transformed the office and kitchen in modern France but its transformations in the bedroom may be carrying things too far, authorities fear.

The Minitel is an electronic screen and keyboard wired to a regular phone. A user dials a number to enter the Minitel network. Then, by tapping out numbers on the keyboard, he chooses from thousands of services - and sometimes it’s sex.

Subscribers can make a restaurant reservation, scan the news, check a horoscope, swap recipes, bank, order business supplies, check documents or shop for anything from brioches to BMWs. All that has won high acclaim for Minitel.

Users also have been able to summon up services that provide sex and pornography, among other off-color things.

″I don’t want Minitel to be placed in the grand tradition of the Folies Bergere,″ said Gerard Longuet, minister of Posts and Telecommunications, referring to the risque Paris stage revue.

Interior Minister Charles Pasqua said: ″Children can come across absolutely demented things by playing on these machines.″

The Minitel surfaced in France in 1982 as an electronic telephone book. It was installed free upon request to save on directory assistance operators.

Now there are 2.8 million Minitels, one for every 10 telephones, with 6,000 commercial services.

Among the most common uses is trolling for someone to sleep with.

Paris is plastered with steamy ads for Minitel message exchanges. Some offer computerized prostitution. Others connect lonely people anxious to excite strangers, many of whom make dates.

Authorities face two problems in controlling it. Messages are regarded as private letters, which cannot be censored; the government can only ask for voluntary restraint. Also, Minitel brings in a fortune, with a charge that is the equivalent of 18 cents a minute.

″We know that some people spend four and five hours a day on their Minitels, just talking,″ said Anne-Marie Le Bevillon, spokesman for the state-own telephone system.

Radio programs sometimes feature discussion groups on the order of Minitel Anonymous:

-One addict said his first monthly phone bill was the franc equivalent of $8,000. His phone was disconnected so he rigged a system to use Minitel in public booths.

-A wife whose husband returned from work and played with the Minitel until bedtime decided to try it herself. She found an electronic lover who nearly broke up the marriage.

A user dials a number on his phone, and the connected screen asks for a service code. The exchanges - ″les messageries″ - request a pseudonym and then list other callers on the line or with messages on file.

A dozen messageries deal in hard-core porn, but most fall into the category of ″convivial dialogue.″ On those services, as well, dialogue far exceeds convivial.

Authorities closed one service on the Riviera that dealt in adolescent prostitutes.

Many users, however, prefer the vicarious thrill of obscene messages and finger-tip voyeurism.

A reporter called in, using the codename ″Beautiful Blonde,″ and within minutes the line glowed with more than 100 invitations.

From an option called ″Photo Album,″ the reporter called up electronic pictures in the tradition of backstreet French postcards.

Authorities give no precise figures, but they insist that convivial dialogue is a small part of a resounding success story for the French phone system.

Minitel is already a success in the Ivory Coast and other French-speaking African states.

Recently, a French delegation demonstrated Minitel in Washington to the House telecommunication subcommittee. Congressmen seemed dubious because of decentralized telephones in the United States.

Most users applaud the box. Service directories sell like crazy, say newsstand owners, whose own lives have been changed by the device. Most order their stocks by Minitel, saving days each week.

″It is fabulous, fabulous,″ said Yves Djian, a lawyer who tripled his working time on the Minitel. He calls up court documents without having to go in person to the archives.

Frenchmen read their morning papers and do their banking on the screen. They find rugby teams, shop for insurance, and play chess or the horses. Psoriasis sufferers have a service of their own.

Merchants use it to verify credit cards and find rare items. Travelers check plane and train schedules and shop around for fares.

″It is a shame that so much filth is exchanged as well, but I don’t see any way of stopping it,″ Djian said. He rejected as unworkable, and unfair, a plan to charge extra for off-color services.

″All that does is eliminate the poorer perverts,″ he said. ″I suppose it is just one of the prices of progress.″

End Adv Tuesday AMs Sept. 8

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