subjected to voyeurism or worse when they turn to an unexplored corner of the Internet. Because the Internet is so frequently pushed as a learning tool -- schools and libraries are quickly moving forward to provide connections for their students and patrons -- parents want assurances that their children can safely use the Internet. Without those assurances, home use is likely to drop as adults sacrifice the Internet in favor of the peace of mind of knowing their children won't be exposed to inappropriate materials.
Programs like Net Nanny have been developed and marketed to allow parents to block access to certain types of sites. Just like any other software fixes, however, these programs have gaps or misfires and are not yet able to guarantee the blocking out of everything the parent considers objectionable. As the programs develop a track record, they will become more reliable. However, in a nation where many parents rely on their kids to operate the VCR, it is far from clear how many parents will feel comfortable operating these various programs. Maybe the kids will be called upon to set the limits for mom and dad.
The seamy side of the Internet certainly poses problems for children, and the comfort level parents feel about this issue has to increase before the matter is put to rest. But it is difficult to tell how serious the problem of unexpected sexual surprise may be when surfing the Internet. The problem of meeting disguised child molesters, pedophiles or worse in chat rooms seems to be a much greater problem.
Late last year the Clinton administration arranged for a meeting of Internet players and wannabes to try and thrash out a solution to the problems left by the CDA's demise. Certainly, Congress could learn by the Supreme Court's rejection of the CDA and reshape "Son of CDA" in such a way as to survive constitutional scrutiny. But the solution that quickly became obvious was a rapid move toward blocking software. What also emerged from the conference was a scheme to rate Web sites for content along the same lines as the recent television ratings policy. While this may seem like an obvious answer, it may not only separate the good from the bad on the Internet, but also the haves from the have nots.
In the television industry, even the smaller cable networks have considerable capital in comparison to the average Web site owner. For a cable network, using a ratings system is a bother, but it's not likely to cause economic destruction. For a small-Web site owner, maintaining a rating may be a nuisance that might make the owner think twice about investing the effort to maintain a site. Most small Web sites are put up by enthusiasts wanting to share their knowledge or images with others. Beyond creating small groups of like-minded computer users, these offbeat sites also allow casually interested visitors to learn more about certain topics, often more than might be available through common reference materials. But if the major Internet directories -- Yahoo!, Lycos, AltaVista, etc. -- stop including these small Web sites in their search engines because they are unrated, then these sites will begin to disappear, available only through word of mouth to those who know their addresses. Such a ratings restriction will accomplish the same thing the CDA tried to do -- it will cast a net over a significantly broader area than needs to be restricted for the sake of children. While the ratings system will be voluntary, it seems obvious that if the Internet players don't do something to clean up the Internet, then Congress or state legislatures will. It is a "voluntary" system driven by the threat of government coercion.
Other side issues are already cropping up. The ACLU and other civil liberties groups believe that public libraries should not be allowed to use blocking software on public terminals because it amounts to government censorship of library content. That may lead some libraries in the short run to close down Internet terminals until that issue is satisfactorily resolved. Questions are now showing up on the FOI-L listserve asking whether the list of sites being blocked by public libraries would be available under a state's open records law.
Harry Hammitt is editor/publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter published in Lynchburg, Va., covering open government laws and information policy issues. E-mail: <75111.743@compuserve. com>. *
March Table of Contents