Protect the Net

Sarah Laughton

    The Internet is one of the wonders of modern technology. It links people all over the world in a way never dreamed of before. Email and chat rooms allow us to stay in contact with far-flung friends and relatives. Or we can meet new people in Indiana, Taiwan, or Antarctica. It is the most open, accessible medium ever, which means there is a vast amount of information to be found on it, ranging from useful to pointless to false to downright alarming. Because anyone with the right software can acquire a “domain” and post anything, there is material on the net that offends or frightens some people. In fact, it is probably safe to say that you can find something on the Net to offend anyone. Pornography, in particular, bothers a lot of people. But controversial material also includes depictions of violence, racist material, anti-Semitic sites, anti-Christians sites, gay and lesbian sites, anti-gay and lesbian sites, and many, many others. Some people feel that offensive material (that is, material offensive to their particular sensibilities) should be removed from the Net or controlled in order to “protect children” and they want to make laws to accomplish this. I believe, however, that the government does not have the right, the responsibility, or the ability to control what is available on the Internet. The responsibility to teach and protect children lies with those who know them best: their parents.

    There have been attempts to pass laws regulating the Internet, especially in regard to pornography. However, many people believe that such laws violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. After such accusations are made, it falls on judges to decide whether the law should be repealed. For example, the Communications Decency Act (which sought /to remove pornography from the net) was declared unconstitutional four months after it was passed. Judge Stewart Dalzell, one of the three judges on the panel, said, “Because it would necessarily effect the Internet itself, the C.D.A would necessarily reduce the speech available to adults on this medium. This is a constitutionally intolerable result.” He also says “The C.D.A will almost certainly fail to accomplish the government’s interest in shielding children from pornography on the Internet” (554). Another bill, The Child On Line Protection Act, which suggested $50,000 fine and/or a six month sentence for making harmful material available to minors, was passed in 1998.

    It strikes me as interesting that, for the purposes of these laws, the term “harmful to minors” is synonymous with “pornography.” No mention of white supremacist sites trying to recruit children or such unashamedly venomous sites as, which could certainly traumatize and possibly influence some viewers. The Child Online Protection Act defines the term material that is harmful to minors as:  any communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording, writing, or other matter of any kind that is obscene or that— (A) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest;  B) depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or  simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast; and  (C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” (SEC. 231. Part e.  par. 6)     The COPA does not define the distinction between ‘lewd’ and ‘artistic’, probably because no one can agree on the definitions. I also have to wonder if “Or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast” means that lewd exhibitions of the pre-pubescent female breast are considered acceptable under this act?      Most people agree that the government and society in general have a responsibility to protect children (and adults) from physical danger, sexual abuse, and such. While everyone agrees that being kidnapped, raped, and killed is harmful to a child, not everyone agrees that seeing racy pictures or religious rhetoric is harmful. One parent may see sexually explicit material as sinful, another parent as educational, and yet another as pointless but fairly harmless. Parents may have a different reaction to their 13-year-old seeing something than to their 5-year-old seeing it. Every parent must make their own definitions, depending on what they value and how impressionable, vulnerable, or sensitive their child is. Without a consensus it is impossible to make laws that reflect personal values.     Another fear is that children will be abducted by people they meet on the Net. There have been a few stories about kids who have run off with a person they met online and been abused or killed, stories that were played up by the media. Vivid but improbable stories stick in people’s heads, and they see a web of danger and deception where there is only a network of computers connecting people. The claim that “There are a lot of wackos on the Net!” is true, but it only reflects the fact that there are a lot of wackos in real life. And on the Internet, they cannot shoot you.     Some of the arguments about protecting children have valid points. There have been studies linking violence in children to watching combat-centered cartoons. A sensitive child (like the one I was) may be traumatized by graphic depictions of violence and death. Many people believe that children of a certain age should not view sexually explicit material (though what that age is and the definition of “explicit” vary). All good parents should monitor what their children are exposed to, with an eye to the child’s personality and their own values.

    But censorship in the name of protection can easily be taken to ridiculous extremes. In “Why Teach Us to Read and Then Say We Can’t?” Nat Hentoff gives several examples of books that have been removed from school curriculums because someone found them offensive. School officials in Clay Country Florida removed My Friend Flicka (a sweet growing up story about a boy and a horse) from the optional reading list for the fifth and sixth grades because it used the offensive word “bitch” in its original meaning of “a female dog.” (542). Another school pulled The Cay (a book about how a white boy overcomes his prejudice while stranded on an island with a black man), from its shelves because of an uncomplimentary description of the black character in the beginning.

    Alarming as these cases are, one can argue that parents have a right to have some say in what their children learn in school. Schools are institutions whose purpose is the education of children and they serve relatively small communities. But to apply one community’s standards to the Internet, which has many purposes and millions of users would seriously restrict the freedom that the Internet provides. A world where everything must be strictly monitored and controlled for fear of offending someone would be a very bland and stifling place to live.

    Even if a universal standard for Internet sites could be created, it would be nearly impossible to enforce. Since a web page is located not on its creator’s computer, but on a computer owned by an Internet Service Provider, it would be very difficult to trace a page back to its creator. It would be easier to punish the Service Provider. To protect themselves, ISPs would have to regularly review every site they hosted. This would be a massive task, requiring hundreds of computer literate people to inspect the same, usually unchanged, sites for illegal material every week or month. With all this effort, we could only control sites based in the United States. To completely control the Internet would require the cooperation of every industrial nation in the world. If that could be achieved, then world peace and environmental protection would be higher priorities than Internet control.

    There are many programs, such as Netnanny and Surfwatch on the market which allow parents to control what can be accessed from their computers. Many Internet Browsers, including Netscape, have a record of the addresses of sights visited within the current session or even the past several days. This would allow parents to know what their children had been doing on line and, if necessary, talk to them. But “The Keep Kid’s Safe Debate” makes the point that many parents do not have the knowledge to find and install a filtering program. In the same article, Jerry Berman, the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, suggest that the best solution is to create a single site with all the information and links a parent would need to chose and install a filtering program. This would be easier and cheaper than wholesale censorship of the Net and would avoid running afoul of the First Amendment.     Mass censorship of the Internet to protect children, or anyone else, is unnecessary, impractical and would stifle the diversity that makes the Internet such an interesting place. Companies that provide computer space and access for web pages as private businesses have the right to make rules about what can be posted in their little corner of the Net. Parents also have the right and the responsibility to protect their children from whatever they perceive as a threat, whether they do so by installing a filtering program, by monitoring the child’s activity on-line, or by working to instill their own values in the child.     Children do need protection and they need guidance, but in the end, I do not think adults do them a favor by sheltering them from every controversial issue, offensive word, and unpleasant reality. Better to let them learn, explore and discuss in relative safety under the guidance of caring adults.

Works Cited

Coats, Senator Dan. "Child Online Protection Act" 1998. 21 September 1999

Dalzell, Stewart “Excerpt from Judge Dalzell’s Opinion Against Internet Decency Law”. New York Times, June 13, 1996, p. A18. Rpt. Perspectives on Argument.  Nancy N. Wood. 2end ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998  (pp. 554-555)

Hentoff, Nat “Why Teach Us To Read And Then Tell Us We Can’t?” Free Speech for Me—But Not For Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), (pp. 374-379) Rpt. Perspectives on Argument.  Nancy N. Wood. 2end ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998  (541-545)

Lynch, Julia. ”The Keep Kids Safe Debate” Family PC Magazine December 1998. 65-69

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