Leave children out of the decency debate
July 4, 1997
Web posted at: 6:03 p.m. EDT (2203 GMT)
An Essay by Jonathon Weber
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Internet
censorship law known as the Communications Decency Act last
week, it closed one chapter and opened another in the highly
charged national drama that could be entitled "How to Save
This story now weaves its way through a wide variety of
social and political debates.
Whether the discussion involves indecency on the Internet, or
sex and violence in music and television, or the condition of
the social safety net, or the propriety of cigarette
advertising, or the war on drugs, one side, or both, often
relies heavily on the assertion that the policy it is
advocating is in the best interests of children.
In theory, that's a good thing. Who could argue against
putting the young and vulnerable, the bearers of our hopes
and dreams, at the center of our social agenda?
In practice, though, children have become a proxy, a
battering ram even for advancing political agendas that
involve them only incidentally. Broadly speaking, the things
that people think are good for children are the same things
they think are good for themselves, and for others. And not
admitting as much is dishonest, destructive to the political
process and damaging to the children themselves.
Conservatives use kids as an excuse
Let's start with the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The
law is ostensibly aimed at making the Internet safe for
children, but in doing so it imposed a set of free-speech
restrictions so broad that the Supreme Court all but laughed
it out of the courtroom.
Leading the charge on the CDA was the Family Research Council
and other conservative religious lobbies. They say they want
to protect children. But these groups are morally opposed to
pornography and sex chat, and to homosexuality, abortion,
subversive politics, illegal drugs and many other things that
are commonly discussed on the Internet.
They find major strains of contemporary American culture
repugnant, and want to suppress them in any way they can.
Kids are a convenient excuse.
The liberals' cause is too broad
The same thing applies on the other end of the political
spectrum. The Center for Media Education, for example, has
been sounding the alarm over Internet marketing practices
that manipulate children and violate their privacy. But the
liberal advocacy group, at heart, is opposed not only to
aggressive, intrusive marketing aimed at children, but to
aggressive, intrusive marketing in general.
It's hard to think of a political issue ostensibly involving
kids where this principle does not apply.
Does former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett think
violent, obscenity-laced rap music is just fine for anyone
over 16? Or over 18? Or over 21? Would the welfare-reform
opponents who point to the damage done to children really
support throwing all the moms and dads and single people off
the rolls, if kids were somehow protected?
Debate has slowed solutions
This is not to say that there aren't plenty of real issues
involving children. Many parents with no political ax to
grind have legitimate concerns about what their kids might be
doing in cyberspace.
But by using child protection as a offensive weapon in a
wider cultural war, the self-appointed defenders of youth do
damage to the very group they're allegedly protecting.
The proponents of the CDA knew from the start that their law
was unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge; they
didn't even bother to hold hearings. The whole effort was
transparently aimed at winning votes from cultural
conservatives, rather than addressing the issue of kids on
One result of this is that development of products and
services that might actually help solve the problem --
ratings systems, filtering software, and family-oriented
Internet Service Providers, for starters -- has been slow,
because the legal and legislative climate has been so
Worse, the arrogant overreaching of the pro-CDA forces has
engendered an enormous amount of suspicion among Netizens,
many of whom now oppose ratings and filters and other
possible child-protection tools as the thin edge of a
censorship wedge. Help for the parents and children caught in
the middle is more distant away than ever.
Debate should be: What kind of culture is best?
It's been obvious for some time that there are radically
opposing visions in this country of what the Internet can and
should be. Some see a medium cleansed of speech that they
consider immoral, but open to any and all forms of commercial
Others see a radically democratic forum that by its nature
challenges the status quo, and must not be compromised in any
way by government regulators and marketers run amok.
So fine, let's fight it out. The cultural conservatives
probably have public opinion on their side -- free speech in
practice isn't nearly as popular as it is in principle -- but
the free-speech advocates have both constitutional
protections and the inherent difficulties of regulating a
global medium working in their favor.
It really is a battle over the kind of society we want to
have. The stakes are high. But we should leave the kids out
(Jonathan Weber is technology editor for The Los Angeles
Times business section. He can be reached via e-mail at
(c) 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate
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