We Can Make the Internet Child-Safe Without Trampling Civil Liberties

By Scot Petersen  |  Posted 2004-07-12

We Can Make the Internet Child-Safe Without Trampling Civil Liberties

At ages 5 and a half and almost 8, my children are already computer geeks in training. The younger one is a whiz at online games. He can download and install them and change desktop settings, while the older one types in URLs he finds on TV and on cereal boxes. Am I worried about them being exposed to Internet porn or other nefarious material? Absolutely. Am I worried that the latest attempt to criminalize such material was recently blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court? Absolutely not.

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Im actually more concerned about exposure to violence on TV or video games than I am about porn popping up on their computer screen. Certainly, in the battle of free speech versus cleaning up the Internet, there are no easy answers, at least in the sense that they can be applied fairly and uniformly. But there are a lot of solutions that work more effectively and are less insidiously destructive to civil liberties than anti-porn legislation.

For instance, I use a filter program that I monitor and update regularly. I participate with my children and watch where they go and explain why they cant buy something on the Internet or register for something with their name and address. They are not allowed to use e-mail or instant messaging unless they want to use the parental accounts while being monitored. Some parents I know also use the honor system. No filters are installed, but if the children are caught, they lose their privileges. Is all this too much work for parents? If so, then it may be time for parents to take away Internet access from the kids. As one reader of The New York Times put it, letting children use the Internet unsupervised is akin to dropping them off on a street corner in a strange city.

Next page: COPA in the crossfire.

We Can Make the Internet Child-Safe Without Trampling Civil Liberties - Page 2

To recap, free speech and the First Amendment did win the latest round, late last month, in the battle over COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, created by Congress in 1998. The Supreme Court rejected an appeal to overturn a 1999 ruling that is blocking the act from becoming law.

Yet this "victory" for free speech is not exactly a win yet. The Supreme Courts ruling says only that COPA might be unconstitutional. The case is being sent back for trial to U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, where COPAs constitutionality will get its real test. Proponents of the bill still have a chance to outlaw porn and its purveyors on the Internet. This wont be easy. COPA came about only because the 1996 Communications Decency Act was rejected wholeheartedly by the Supreme Court in 1997 on free-speech grounds, and COPA has been languishing the past six years.

The problem that COPA is trying to attack isnt the real issue here—the attempted solutions are. No one thinks porn is something to which children should have access, yet the Internet is rife with porn (or other "objectionable" content). If you cant keep children away from the Net, then banning the content is the only way, or so the logic goes.

But what is or isnt objectionable is an ancient debate, one that the Internet does not make any easier. The question was central to the Supreme Courts recent ruling. Despite a 5-4 ruling, the court affirmed its support of free speech: "Content-based prohibitions, enforced by severe criminal penalties, have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority Opinion. "To guard against that threat the Constitution demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid."

More often than not, those who seek to ban content to "save" the public define the threat too broadly and vaguely, creating an opening for banning any material that can be declared obscene. A voluntary rating system has been proposed and is a step in the right direction.

The bottom line is that there are few problems with the Internet that can be legislated away easily. As cyber-lawyer Lawrence Lessig puts it, "Cyberspace is not a place. It is many places." The Internet is a genie escaped from the bottle, a cat out of the bag. It cannot be neatly tied up and controlled. At some point out, individual responsibility and consequences must take over instead of expecting the government or the courts to rescue the innocent masses.

Scot Petersen can be reached at scot_petersen@ziffdavis.com.

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