Protecting Digital Kids from Digital Smut
That was demonstrated on an unprecedented scale this week as millions of users from the around the world including schoolchildren visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Web page (www.nasa.gov) seeking the extraordinary pictures sent back to Earth of the Martian surface from the Carl Sagan Lander.
Users typing in www.nasa.com found extraordinary images of another sort. That address brings up Naked Eyes.com, an adult entertainment Web site featuring images of naked women.
It's problems like that that lead President Clinton to back software and technical solutions that could shield children from indecent material in his adminstration's report on e-commerce.
The report, entitled "A Framework For Global Electronic Commerce," was released July 1, only days after the Supreme Court knocked down the Communications Decency Act, a controversial piece of legislation that banned the transmission of "indecent" material over a computer network to a minor.
Furthermore, President Clinton announced July 1 that he would later meet with teachers, parents and industry officials to encourage development of "market-based" solutions of Internet smut.
"I ask the industry leaders here today to join with us in developing a solution for the Internet as powerful for the computer as the V-chip will be for television, to protect children in ways that are consistent with the First Amendment," Clinton said at a ceremony at the East Room of the White House.
Ira Magaziner, the president's chief Internet policy advisor, said the new approach is consistent with the framework's goal of allowing the industry to set Internet standards.
"We think, in fact, that it's potentially dangerous, and perhaps futile, for governments to try to censor material on the Internet," Magaziner said. "Rather, what we want to do is empower parents to decide themselves what should come into their homes."
Magaziner envisions a series of flexible rating systems and services that will allow parents to restrict their children's access to sexual or violent material they feel inappropriate.
A number of software companies say they already are providing those services, and a rating system similar to the one used for television programming is already in the works.
The software takes a variety of approaches to smut on the net. Some only allow children access to an approved list of Web sites that is frequently updated; others scan incoming content for offensive language. Some software packages even try to determine if an image contains nudity.
Most filtering programs also filter online chat sessions for offensive language. Many parents are concerned that their children could be exposed to pedophiles or unwanted solicitations in online chat rooms.
Moreover, some packages, reacting to parents' privacy concerns, prevent children from sending out personal information like addresses and credit card numbers.
Of course, how effective these packages are in protecting children are always in doubt, and none profess to be fool-proof, software company officials said.
"Anyone who says their software is 100 percent effective is ... a fool," Sydney Rubin, a spokesperson for Microsystems Software, maker of Cyber Patrol. "Anyone who believes it is ... a bigger fool."
The software's effectiveness also depends on how parents set up the software, meaning parents cannot become totally uninvolved.
However, restricting access to only a "yes" list of Web sites that some programs create is an approach busy parents may be more comfortable with. Other software packages, such as Cyber Patrol and Net Nanny, allow parents to either add or subtract from a list of acceptable sites.
An online ratings systems has been proposed as another tool for parents. One system, calls PICS, is being considered by the World Wide Web Consortium, the standards-setting body headed by Web founder Tim Berners-Lee. Both Netscape and Microsoft have pledged to support the PICS system.
PICS would allow online publishers to self-rate their content, and could incorpate a number of rating schemes created by a number of organizations. Filtering packages could either allow access to sites that have the appropriate ratings or restrict access to sites labeled mature content.
Another online rating system, called RSACi, has been developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council which has been incorporated into Microsoft's Web browser, Internet Explorer.
Despite the rise of filtering software, federal legislation regulating Internet content could still be considered. Some social conservatives and child advocates, especially those who backed the Communications Decency act, question how effectively filtering software and rating systems will prevent pornographers from acting irresponsibility online.
"Their incentives are money driven, and if they can make money of the children, they're going to do it," Cathy Cleaver of the Family Research Council said on the NewsHour after the CDA was struck down. "So laws need to be in place to impose the kind of responsibilities these people aren't taking on their own, and you know, technological advances can only help."