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Why Johnny Can't Surf

How to protect kids from online smut? A big-tent D.C. summit finds hot air alone won't do the job

By Bruce Handy/Washington


(TIME, December 15) -- Thirty years ago, when youngsters wanted to look at pictures of bare-naked ladies, it required no small measure of ingenuity. Were Dad's Playboys hidden somewhere in the den? In the back of his bedroom closet? The dresser? Under the bed? Could they be removed--and replaced--without detection? I should hasten to add that my own father kept no smut in the house, at least that I ever found, but a good friend's dad had quite the cache of Playboys, as well as a couple of "naturist" magazines. That's how life was lived in those days, and nobody had to convene a three-day summit meeting in Washington to worry about it.

Today, thanks to the Internet, youngsters with computers are but the proverbial two clicks away from pictures of bare-naked ladies--and worse. This has, not surprisingly, become a matter of national concern, one that Congress tried to deal with by passing the ham-handed Communications Decency Act in 1996. But last June the Supreme Court ruled that the CDA violated adults' First Amendment rights, leaving the whole issue of children and the Internet in something of a legal vacuum. Since policymakers abhor vacuums even more than Nature does, the capital found itself host last week of a conference graced with the title of "Internet/Online Summit: Focus on Children." Was there no budget for a clever acronym?

Organized by the online industry with prodding from the White House, the summit managed to draw an impressive and diverse array of pressure groups into its tent, as well as Al Gore, Janet Reno (both originally scheduled to speak on the day she was to announce whether he would be saddled with an independent prosecutor, much to the press's interest), sundry lesser Cabinet members, Congresspeople, lobbyists, academics and law-enforcement officials. All were united by a single goal: a genuine -- if also, in many cases, self-interested -- desire to protect kids. Missing were the kind of sparks you'd expect when, say, representatives of the American Library Association share a drafty hotel ballroom with members of Family-Friendly Libraries. Instead, the summit percolated with a kind of pan-ideological bonhomie -- as in the Crossfire green room, one imagines, but bigger and with even worse food.

A few educational initiatives were announced, a white paper or two presented, but mostly what there was was talk. "That's Washington," sighed a frustrated, nonnative participant, resigned to cruel geographic determinism like Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown. In a series of speeches and panels stretching over a long day and a half, speaker after speaker made the same unassailable points: children should be protected from pornographic Websites and chat room-lurking pedophiles; parents need to be "empowered" to deal with these issues; the Internet is nevertheless a wonderful tool; it is the medium of the 21st century; the 21st century will be here soon. In the view of some, even this level of agreement was a major accomplishment.

The peak of rhetorical obviousness was scaled by the Vice President, who told his audience with an approximation of forcefulness that "the solution that you're developing must be a solution that works." Advocating neither censorship nor license -- and perhaps mindful of a recent New Yorker piece that claimed President Clinton is worried that Gore will fumble the New Democrat legacy--the V.P. suggested that the industry find "a third way, an American way." No skin off anyone's nose there.

Gore was really speaking to, and in some ways for, the people who hope to make money from the Net. The commerce-minded don't want government regulation of cyberspace any more than the A.C.L.U. does, but they realize that the only way to turn the Internet into a genuine mass medium and make a real pile of money is to convince the public that it is a clean and well-lighted place. The industry's mantra has been "Patience! Technological refinements will soon be able to protect everyone's interests." This is why the summit opened with demos of various programs that can block out unwanted Websites and E-mail or provide parents with a log of what their kid has been doing on the computer. "This has sometimes seemed more like a trade show than a summit," complained Barry Steinhardt of the A.C.L.U. But that was precisely the p.r. message that the summit's organizers -- including America Online, AT&T and this magazine's parent, Time Warner -- were trying to convey to the public and Congress. As a Santa's-helper questioner asked AOL chairman and CEO Steve Case during a panel discussion, "Steve, do you believe the private sector can deal effectively with these issues?" Guess what -- he did.

Away from the microphones, one of the summit's more prominent voices gave it a slightly more cynical spin: Now Congressman So-and-So can go to the Christian Coalition and talk technology, technology, technology. Not that there aren't still a few bugs. Many of the software programs block out innocuous Websites as well as toxic ones; others are cumbersome or do unpleasant things to your computer's operating system. Many in the online industry are touting a new "platform for Internet content selection" (PICS) system that is a kind of V chip for the Internet. But as participants in the summit's one contentious and genuinely thought-provoking panel pointed out, V-chipping the Net is no snap. Who would rate the Websites, and what criteria would be used? How do you keep pace with a medium that grows by 4,000 sites a day? How do you enforce U.S. standards and regulations on a global medium?

Lacking answers, the summit wound down with a panel of actual children -- a cute if predictable stunt. Onstage with their parents and teachers before a ballroom full of strange, faceless adults, the kids readily assured us that they do all they can to avoid naughty material on the Net. They were perhaps a bit more credible when talking about the genuine fun you can have online -- a notion that may have escaped many of their listeners. The president of a Website company bet that if I asked summit participants what they used the Internet for, most would say nothing but E-mail. I conducted an informal survey, and this turned out to be pretty much the case. Take Donna Rice Hughes, the former gal pal of Gary Hart, who has reconstituted herself as an antipornography activist with the group Enough Is Enough. She said she used the Net strictly for research and E-mail. Nothing recreational? "Gosh, no," she said. "If I'm going to recreate, I'm going to go play tennis or do something physical."

In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 15, 1997

Can Al Bare His Soul?
Why The Reno-Freeh Spat Runs Deep
The Canal Cronies
The Postpartum Prosecutor
Why Johnny Can't Surf
Viewpoint: Everybody's Children
The Notebook: Gephardt - Open Mouth, Insert Foot

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