April 29, 1999
The school shootings in Littleton, CO, have led to a closer look at hateful messages on the Internet and violent video games. Some are calling for tighter regulation of the messages that appear in cyberspace. After a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the issue with a panel of experts.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me are Katrina Heron, editor-in-chief of Wired, a monthly magazine covering the new digital culture; Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families; and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors the Internet for Web sites produced by hate groups.
|Messages of hate and the Internet.|
Thank you all for being with us. Bruce Taylor, first, the sites that show how the make bomb, sites full of hate, should something be done to get those off the Internet?
BRUCE TAYLOR: Well, even though we may not be able to get them completely off the Internet and they may not even be illegal, there are tools available. There are filter programs and they're -- that can be used by parents, schools, libraries. And there are also immunity protections for Internet service companies like AOL or Prodigy or AT&T who could block out those Web sites voluntarily, and they have the right to do that. I think they should do that because we're going to see more of this kind of misuse of that if we don't do something.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And should something else be done? Does there need to be state or federal regulation?
BRUCE TAYLOR: I think there's a combination. Parents can't do it alone, and neither can industry do it by themselves trying to block it out, but government can outlaw some unprotected material like obscenity or child pornography and some bomb-making material, but most of that isn't something you can criminalize. It's something they have to give the tools to private industry to do, which is why, for instance, Senators McCain and Hollings have a bill to give money to schools and libraries if they'll use their filter programs to block out some of this material so kids don't get immersed in it and spend all their time having easy access to it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Mr. Taylor, you think that the Internet played a role in this tragedy?
BRUCE TAYLOR: Well, it's not that the Internet is bad, but it's -- the bad stuff on the Internet. It's what's causing these kids to immerse themselves and to get hypnotized and seduced by it. It may not change their minds, but it's the place where their minds are changed. And we should make it a better place for these kids to hang out. The Internet is spreading this message of hate and violence and doom and gloom. And it doesn't have to be that way -- just like AOL doesn't have to carry that Nazi and the Klan news - you know -- Web sites. And they don't have to carry the bomb sites. And they could do a lot that government can't do. So I think before the government should try to step in, private industry and parents are going to have to do more on their part. And that wouldn't violate the First Amendment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Heron, What do you think should be done about these sites?
KATRINA HERON: I think that the Internet basically reflects the ills of our society, just like any other medium. And I think that the tragic thing here is that the Internet probably could have helped prevent this situation if anyone had been listening. These children could hardly have chosen a more public venue in which to display all their hate, rage, and disappointment with what was going on around them. They were, in effect, publishing their intentions to kill people on the Internet. In fact, as we know, Judy Brown, the mother of one of the other children, took this information to the authorities and asked that something be done about it. These kids -- it took them a year to put this plot together it. It was premeditated. There were so many signs in the school, with the parents, weapons lying around, bomb materials they were putting together. I think that it's obvious that if someone had been paying attention, it wouldn't have happened. And to blame the Internet is the classic case of blaming the messenger.
|Are more regulations needed?|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what do you think about what Mr. Taylor says, that there really had to be some regulating of sites like bomb-making sites, for example?
KATRINA HERON: Well, I think it's very difficult for AOL to monitor every site. We know that. That would be the equivalent of asking AT&T to monitor every telephone call that's made. Clearly AOL does a very conscientious and good job of monitoring the children's areas, and the chat rooms, they're very conscientious about that. It's difficult for them to look at the contents of every Web site. And I think that filters are available at the level of the family and the individual. This is something that the U.S. Supreme court got into when it struck down the Communications Decency Act. The Supreme Court justices had the sense to realize that it doesn't make sense to try to control the Internet at the point of input. It makes sense to try to control it at the point of outtake. So when the people -- where people are actually receiving the information -- parents have at their disposal the ability and tools to censer and to filter. Those are their individual decisions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Taylor, your response to that?
BRUCE TAYLOR: Well, the one good point she makes is you can't shoot the messenger. There's nothing inherently bad about the Internet, but everyone knows who is familiar where most of this violent and hate and dangerous and bomb making and sexual mutilation stuff is, and they have filter programs that already have programmed most of those sites in. And AOL can't monitor the whole Internet, but they certainly could do what they already know are these popular sites, and they could restrict them so that they don't reach these mass audiences of children, and parents do have to be more conscientious in making sure that they do monitor their kids because the Internet is a very hypnotic, very attractive medium. It's like turning a kid loose in a combat zone with a handful of quarters, you know.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rabbi Cooper, your center monitors these sites. And you've just put out a report on them. Tell us what you've found.
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: Digital Hate 2000 was released on the 1st of April. On April 19, 1995, there was one hate site on the World Wide Web. Our report talks about 1426 problematic sites. And I think it's important -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like what. Sorry to interrupt. But like what?
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: We're talking about bomb making, terrorism, traditional hate groups, special Web sites now put out by extremist groups for kids as young as eight and nine years old.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean aimed directly at kids?
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: Aimed directly at children. Hate music where you're now selling 50,000 CD's of music that never made it across the Atlantic in the 80's -- and now all the rage of the alternative areas online. The point, though, however, is that the World Wide Web, which is where most of the action is at, really in a sense is marketplace. We have two Web sites. It's marketplace to sell a product, to promote an idea. It is not a place primarily for discussion or debate. And as such, I think a good place for us to start is maybe look at the Canadian Internet Provider's Association as a model. Let the people who put the services out set their own guidelines. You don't necessarily need Washington. And they don't need to put on additional staff. Whether a parent calls up or a human rights agency the morning after and says you have an online terrorist tutor, will you pull the plug; give the guy his check back and make him go elsewhere. So we need to start creating an idea that we need some leadership from the Internet community, and some action that really doesn't impact in the First Amendment but reflects on the exact kind of morays that we have in the pre-Internet world.
The New York Times won't take a prepaid ad from just anyone. And none of the television stations will take a prepaid infomercial without looking at content. So the bottom line is let everybody go on the World Wide Web, but the morning after, if, in fact, the next -- the father of next Eric Harris does look over the shoulder and sees a bomb-making site, a filter may take care of his family, but we're worried about the next Eric Harris and the next possible terrorists. For that, we need help at the source from the collective genius who have given us this technology and from the people who are currently driving the prices of the NASDAQ through the roof.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Heron, your reaction to that?
KATRINA HERON: AOL certainly is taking down sites when people notify them. They take very good and prompt action in that case, as they did in this case. I think - you know -- the larger point worth making is that parents and communities still need to get involved. There's this enormous urge to blame the government and to look elsewhere for the answers to your problems. The fact is that research shows now that most teenagers surf the Web unsupervised, you know. And I think it's also true that while there are like 83 million Americans online now and the overwhelming majority of those are adults -- probably only about 13 million right now are children -- at the same time, there's a perception among adults that they don't understand as much. You hear constantly from parents my kids are doing things on the Internet, I don't know. But parents need to educate themselves. But I would also like to point out that we're in the middle of an enormous and exciting social transformation that's occurring because of the Internet and the digital culture. There's so much good news about what happens on the Internet. There's long distance learning, there is - until recently -- Radio B92, the only way that we could actually get news out of Kosovo. You know, that's just been shut down. I mean, if you needed a reason to care about the power of the Internet, it's because it allows us to maintain and allow to flourish an open exchange of ideas. Let's not forget that. That's so important. That needs to be protected and encouraged.
|Enforcing existing laws.|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Taylor, I want to turn now to what Ms. Heron raised before, which is Eric Harris's Web site, his threats: The general threat, "I would like to kill almost all of its residents," referring to Denver; the specific threat against Brooks Brown. What could have been done about that under current laws?
BRUCE TAYLOR: Some of the threats that you make against particular individuals are already illegal. And there was a federal indictment against young college students up in Michigan. But putting hate thoughts up there is not necessarily illegal. And therefore, like we said, the same technology that makes the World Wide Web so big and vast and important, and we want all of our kids to use the Internet and the World Wide Web, we're going to have to use some of that same technology in the filter programs and in the parental controls.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, specifically on this, what would you do? Do you think that, for example, law enforcement agencies should be browsing and looking for these kinds of threats?
BRUCE TAYLOR: I think more we're going to see law enforcement agencies have to sit down and start looking when they get complaints or even when they don't to see whether the signs appear to be from people who appear to carry them out, or if it's just some kid ranting on. But that's why just like those sites of the Harris kids violated AOL policy, those kinds of company policies should be enforced because their ability to use their technology to block out or to restrict these kinds of material or kick off misusers is much greater than the government's to go supervising. And so that's why I'm saying responsible companies like AOL are probably a bigger answer for parents, because we can't supervise our kids all the time, although we better start paying better attention.
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: If I can just add -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. Yes. Rabbi cooper, you saw this; your center saw it. What did you do?
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: We saw an earlier version of a Web site that did not have any specific threats but were linked to the anarchy and bomb-making sites. So that wouldn't be enough to take any specific action.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you're talking about Eric Harris's site, right?
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: That's correct. But we have, for example, dealt with French AOL when there was a skinhead site last year when they published online a hit list of prominent French citizens. Overseas with other democracies it's a much simpler issue. Within 24 hours French AOL took down the site and there were arrests on both sides of the British Channel, the English Channel. We know what didn't happen here with the Nuremberg File site when it came to abortion doctors. And we realize that we have to operate within the democratic values. We're all very much in favor of First Amendment rights, but if I can echo one point, none of us can afford to use or to rely on the Internet as being a baby-sitter service, but at the same time, what do you do when your send your ten- and twelve-year-old kid to do a research project on Martin Luther King, Jr., and you go to mlk.org, it looks like a legitimate site. It takes you ten minutes to figure out its put up actually by racists and white supremacists. We need help across the board not with prior restraint but with morning-after good citizenship online from the mega companies who are bringing us this wonderful tool.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Ms. Heron, we have little time, but could AOL watch all the sites to be able to kick somebody like Eric Harris off if he's making threats, I mean just technically?
KATRINA HERON: No. At the present time they don't have the technological capability. But I would also argue that's not the really way to go. As I said earlier in the program what we're seeing is the reflection of society's ills here. These things happen. It's not the fault of the Internet. And the Internet cannot correct it. But I would also like to return to something else that's come up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Very briefly. We're almost out of time.
KATRINA HERON: Well, people talk about the ease of access and how frightening it is that kids can go and learn how to buy bombs and so on. If you want to talk about the real issue of ease of access, it's guns. We all know that. That's the real issue. And that's why President Clinton's initiative now is or so important. That's what really is at stake.
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER: And hundreds of online sites where you can buy those guns unsupervised adding to the problem.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. That's all the time we have. But, thank you all very much for being with us.