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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 the Children."

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 the Net.

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 uncertain.

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 exploitation.

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 of it.

(Jonathan Weber is technology editor for The Los Angeles Times business section. He can be reached via e-mail at Jonathan.Weber(ATSIGN)

(c) 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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