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Access Denied

December 1, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS: With the increasing popularity of the Internet, especially among children, parents and others have been concerned that young people have easy access to a wide range of pornography available online. They have pointed out that it is a relatively easy maneuver for children to call up salacious material at home or in libraries–simply by searching for key words like “porn” or “sex.” In Gilroy, California, Sandy Zappa speaks for many angry parents.

SANDY ZAPPA, Parent: I have like nine affidavits signed by adults who have seen obvious minors pulling up pornography.

SPENCER MICHELS: In February of 1996 Congress passed–and the president signed–the Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to transmit “indecent” material to minors on line. But last June, the Supreme Court overturned key portions of that law–a move cheered by some civil libertarians and librarians, who argued that restrictions on the Internet amounted to curtailment of free speech. Many objected–and still object–to filtering devices–commercially available software that blocks access to some Web sites that contain objectionable material. Martin Gomez is director of the Brooklyn Public Library.

MARTIN GOMEZ, Brooklyn Public Library: It would limit people’s ability to have access–I’m thinking of adults in particular–to have access to information let’s say about breast cancer or sexual harassment because my understanding of the way that these filtering systems work, is that they’re keyed in on key terminology.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite those sentiments, some family groups and lawmakers are still demanding controls over what gets on the net. Today, several Internet industry leaders–hoping to head off legislation or strict regulation–announced their own voluntary plan to limit what is available to minors.

JERRY BERMAN, The Center for Democracy & Technology: Rather than the government playing the role of parent, the Internet tool kit that we are advocating allows parents and users and communities to enforce and to choose their own diversity of values.

SPENCER MICHELS: The industry proposal calls for developing new filtering technology parents can use to block access to sites children may visit; establishing a public service campaign to inform parents about the danger of pornography online; and creating a national hotline to report incidents of cyber porn.

STEVE CASE, America Online: Ultimately, the only real solution is parental empowerment and parental education, so, therefore, a legislative solution may not create the kind of comfort that people seek and actually could, inadvertently, do some damage to dealing with the problem in a substantive kind of way.

SPENCER MICHELS: But some critics don’t believe that voluntary industry efforts will be effective. Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana introduced a bill last month requiring all commercial Web sites carrying material harmful to minors to block access or face criminal penalties.

SEN. DAN COATS, (R) Indiana: We provided very stiff fines in the Communications Decency Act, which I’m introducing. That hopefully will become the basis for which we can send a very strong signal to the providers that if you get caught, if you do this and you get caught, it’s not going to be, oh, well, we’re sorry, we won’t do it again; there’s going to be a very stiff penalty, including a jail sentence.

SPENCER MICHELS: Any new law restricting Internet access–like the Communications Decency Act before it–is certain to be challenged in court.

PHIL PONCE: Joining us to explain today’s announcement and its implications is Steven Levy, who as senior editor covers the Internet for Newsweek Magazine. And, welcome, Mr. Levy. In lay terms, what is the thrust of what the industry is trying to do?

STEVEN LEVY, Newsweek: Industry believes the solution to this problem of easy access to salacious materials is to give parents the tools to block children from getting at these things, so what they’re doing is they’re putting together sort of a mosaic of different solutions, different options for parents that try to put things on their computers to keep kids away from the bad stuff.

PHIL PONCE: And that’s what is referred to as filters?

STEVEN LEVY: Roughly, yes, that was the main means by which they wanted this.

PHIL PONCE: And how do these filters work?

STEVEN LEVY: Well, they work in a number of different ways. Essentially what you have here is a vast newsstand, the biggest newsstand imaginable, and these filtering programs kind of fill the role of a guy behind the counter who keeps children from the objectionable material in some of the publications that parents don’t want their children to see. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to do that on the Internet as it is in a newsstand. There’s literally millions of different potential Web sites, places that kids can go on the Internet, and it’s very difficult to look at those and then decide which are objectionable. You could look for key words but sometimes you wind up blocking much too much. There was a famous case about a year ago on America Online where breast cancer support groups were blocked from these filters because it had the word “breast” in it, and they thought that was objectionable. So people on America Online couldn’t get help with breast cancer support. So you have to refine, you know, the ways you use this, and you know, perfection really is sort of an ideal that people will have to keep reaching for in those things.

PHIL PONCE: And, Mr. Levy, is there any evidence to suggest just how much adult-oriented material is working its way into the computer screens that children have access to?

STEVEN LEVY: Well, you have to figure that without any blocking at all children have access to everything on the Internet. And that includes a lot of adult material. The real bad stuff kids can’t get really without a credit card. In practice, you have to be fairly dedicated to look for the horrible pornography that you hear about. There’s a lot of software pornography, which is available without a credit card that kids can get at very easily unless the parents install these filters, and in some cases even filters won’t stop a dedicated child from getting at these things if a kid wants to see it.

PHIL PONCE: How different will things be if some of these initiatives actually go into place?

STEVEN LEVY: Generally, the kinds of initiatives that have been announced today–and these are initiatives on behalf of some of the people involved in the Internet industry like America Online, or Microsoft, or AT&T. These things are incrementally better than what we have now. American Online, for instance, introduced an icon which, you know, hit sort of a panic button. If something goes wrong online, they can call for help, and also they put the filters a little more prominently in the sign-up process, so parents would be more aware of it as an option to put on the software so kids wouldn’t get at it. So it makes it a little better, and I think overall what this conference is doing is saying, look, we can do it; the industry can move things along incrementally so parents will have an option to keep their kids away from this stuff.

PHIL PONCE: Please clarify, though. Who is actually doing the blocking? Is the burden on the companies, or is the burden on the parents?

STEVEN LEVY: Ultimately, the burden is on the parents, and I think that’s the message that these companies want to give. There is a responsibility–it’s implicit upon these companies that these companies generally accept that it’s up to them to let parents know that this stuff is out there, and it’s up to them to make it easy enough so even an adult can use. One very big problem is that kids, by and large, are more conversant in technology than their parents are. So when you talk about a program to keep a child from something on the Internet that a parent has to install, you’ve got a problem right there because in a lot of households it’s the kids who teach the parents how to use it, not the other way around.

PHIL PONCE: And for people who don’t follow the Internet, or who maybe are not real conversant with computers, explain briefly, what is a chat room, and what are the dangers that a chat room might pose?

STEVEN LEVY: All right. Here’s a problem that really isn’t being addressed very fully because it’s a much tougher problem to crack. Chat rooms are places where people go on the Internet to converse in real time. It’s sort of a giant party line, where you can get people from all over the world to basically, you know, virtually meet in a certain site and communicate with each other. And that’s where some real dangers lie. You hear about these cyber- predators, and it’s a fact that there are adults who try to lure under-aged, you know, children online and perhaps set up meetings with them later on, and, you know, just as predators in the real world do, these people often focus on kids with self-esteem problems and troubled homes, kids maybe having problems finding their own sexual identity, and try to find these kids online. It’s easier to find them online than it is in schoolyards, and maybe set up meetings for them elsewhere. A lot of these filter programs really don’t do anything to filter what goes on on the chat rooms. What you have to do then is have parents decide whether to block chat rooms totally or, you know, go to places where they know the chat rooms are monitored full-time sometimes by people working for the service.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Levy, this is largely an industry-drive initiative. What kinds of government steps is the industry trying to avoid?

STEVEN LEVY: Well, what they’re trying to avoid is a reprise of the Communications Decency Act, which we saw, you know, in the piece preceding this. That was something which was so far ranging that uttering an expletive online, that people use every day, made one liable for a jail sentence literally. So the Supreme Court struck that down and Sen. Coats, as you said, is suggesting something called the “Son of CDA,” which is again an attempt to mandate certain sorts of restrictions on speech, which inevitably would affect not only what’s available to children but the way adults communicate with each other. And I think the civil liberties groups are particularly upset about that because they feel that the Internet is the greatest thing, you know, since sliced bread when it comes to adults communicating with each other, with free speech in general. And they would hate to see that great communications bazaar limited on the basis of what children can say.

PHIL PONCE: Even with these new tools, if they are implemented, and if parents take advantage of them, is there still some risk involved for parents to have–to have their kids having access to the Internet?

STEVEN LEVY: Well, there is really, and ultimately it just comes down to parents instructing kids to do the right thing, and they can’t rely 100 percent on these filters. The filters can be very helpful, especially when–as they are on a place like America Online–they’re easy to use. You can click them on. They prevent access to certain things, but ultimately you know your kids are going to get into a chat room. Things can happen. Kids can use e-mail and communicate with other folks, and ultimately, the whole struggle when a parent lets a kid solo on the Internet, so to speak, is making sure the kid is responsible enough to do this alone, just as you wouldn’t let a kid get behind the wheel of a car unless you trusted the kid to drive the car and follow the rules of the road.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Levy, thank you very much for joining us.

STEVEN LEVY: My pleasure.