WASHINGTON (BP)–Representatives of several family advocacy groups were cautiously optimistic about initiatives to protect children from on-line obscenity announced at an “Internet/Online Summit” in Washington Dec. 1-3.
Speaking about the zero-tolerance policy toward child pornography announced by Vice President Al Gore and leading Internet service providers (ISPs), Shyla Welch of the Enough is Enough anti-pornography group in Fairfax, Va., said, “That’s great rhetoric, but what does that mean? We want to know that the initiatives are implemented.”
Among the initiatives announced by Gore were a CyberTipLine — 1-800-843-5678 — run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children where parents can report objectionable on-line sites or activity; a “Parents Guide to the Internet” produced by the Department of Education, available free by calling 1-800-872- 5327 or on-line at www.ed.gov/pubs/parents/internet; and a public awareness campaign featuring a town hall meeting to be held in schools next fall about how to create a safe on-line environment.
The vice president told representatives of the industry, who sponsored the conference, “the solution that you’re developing must be a solution that works, not just a solution that theoretically could work; it must actually work in the experience and in the lives of families in this country.”
Welch of Enough is Enough said while initiatives like the ones announced by Gore were “a good first step,” such things as parental education campaigns don’t address the point that 70 percent of children’s Internet access takes place outside the home.
“Parents cannot possibly shoulder the burden of protecting their children while they’re in school,” Welch said.
A Dec. 3 report in The Washington Times said about 1.5 million children are left home alone by working parents after school. And a survey of 750 on-line families by the monthly Family PC magazine found that only 26 percent use screening software presently available.
In a June 26 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Communications Decency Act that made it a crime to make “indecent” material available to minors over the Internet. The White House called for the Internet summit in response to that decision to discuss other solutions to the problem.
In November, Sen. Dan Coats, R.-Ind., introduced S. 1482, a bill designed to target commercial distribution of information deemed “harmful to minors” on the Internet’s World Wide Web. At a Dec. 1 news conference in connection with the Internet summit, Coats said he hopes the measure would be found constitutional because it would not apply to private communications such as e- mail.
Crystal Roberts, legal policy analyst for the Family Research Council in Washington, said Internet service providers bear a heavy burden of responsibility for dealing with the problem. “If they agreed to take all obscene material off their Web sites, there would be no need for filtering materials,” she said.
Roberts was pleased that Attorney General Janet Reno pledged to enforce child pornography and child stalking laws and apply them to the Internet, but she stressed her council and other pro- family organizations want to see vigorous enforcement of anti- obscenity laws as well.
Robert Flores, senior counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families in Fairfax, Va., was disappointed that Reno failed to respond to calls “to actually initiate obscenity prosecutions against the producers and distributors of obscene material on the Internet.”
Flores worked for the Justice Department from 1989 until last February and directed its prosecutions of child pornography. He said he thinks such things as the CyberTipLine may lull parents into thinking that Internet obscenity will be vigorously prosecuted, while there is no evidence that the Justice Department is serious about taking such a course.
On the positive side, he noted Robert J. Davis, the CEO of the Lycos search engine firm, announced at the summit his company is removing all obscene material from its Web sites and said he doesn’t allow his 9-year-old son to get on the Internet unless he is with him.
“If one service provider can do it, there’s no reason why all the industry can’t,” Flores said.
Karen Jo Gounaud, founder and president of Family Friendly Libraries of Springfield, Va., an organization that advocates for better protection for children from “age-inappropriate materials” in schools and libraries, said she was “a lot more optimistic” than she thought she would be after hearing the pledges made at the summit.
“I have great faith in the possibility of success in the linkage between the ISPs and law enforcement,” Gounaud said. “There was such strong advocacy for going after the child pornography industry.”
Gounaud’s major criticism was of the American Library Association, which has resisted attempts to have public libraries put filters on their Internet access computers on anti-censorship grounds.
“They claim they will accept filters if they only block out illegal pornography, and, of course, no filtering system is that perfect,” Gounaud said.
One of the most negative reactions to the summit from a family advocacy group came from Patrick Trueman, director of governmental affairs for the American Family Association in Washington. He said the three-day meeting “was a farce, I believe, because the reality is that access providers to the Internet are the ones who give hard-core pornography to children. No one pointed that out, because the summit was run by America Online and other access providers.”
Trueman said Gore and Reno, “who could prosecute this but won’t, refused to say that they will enforce current law against access providers.” In Trueman’s view, “promises to give parents access blockers and to enforce part of the law don’t cut it.”
However, such advocates of more vigorous law enforcement against on-line pornography were criticized by Rob Boston, assistant director of communications of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington.
“The Internet and the World Wide Web as a communications tool will be immune to censorship by their very nature,” he said. Boston noted aside from nationally known ISPs like America Online and Disney Online, hundreds of service providers are regional and local, and “there’s no way that all of them are going to be able to come up with censorship policies and block access to various sites.”
According to Boston, “calling for some sort of government regulation is futile on two grounds. Number one, the Supreme Court has simply struck that down (in the ruling on the Communications Decency Act), and number two, as a practical matter, it simply can’t be done, given the nature of the medium.”
But Roberts of the Family Research Council has a different view, noting, “The Supreme Court has already said that this information can be regulated (in rulings on obscenity law),” she said. Referring to a caution given by Gore in his address to the Internet summit, Roberts said prosecution of illegal obscenity is “not necessarily the heavy hand of government coming in and regulating.”
And according to Coats, “it has only been the threat of government involvement that has prompted this industry to take any steps at all.” In his Dec. 1 remarks, he said, “They say this new Communications Decency Act isn’t necessary. I say if we remove it, we will probably be right back to where we are now — a click of the mouse away from unrestrained pornography available to our children.”