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Internet summit takes on smut and regulation

Graphic December 1, 1997
Web posted at: 11:55 p.m. EST (0455 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Major Internet companies began a three-day summit Monday that they hope will keep smut out of the hands of children and government out of the business of regulating the Internet.

Major online service providers like America Online, AT&T and Microsoft pledged to provide software that would allow parents to block out objectionable material, but also pointed out that parents have a responsibility as well.

"Technology is not a replacement for good parenting," said America Online Chairman Steve Case. "I think technology is a supplement that gives parents the tools to make the choices that they think are appropriate."



A L S O :

Steps being taken to make Internet safer for children


The emphasis on voluntary measures and parental responsibility was intended to head off a drive for new legislation that might slow the growth of the Internet or impose criminal liability on online service providers.

Interest groups from across the political spectrum also participated in the meeting, giving voice to the concerns of parents, teachers, librarians and Internet users.

"Parenting in the 21st century really involves understanding the Internet and what's out there and what your kids have access to," said Christine Varney, chairwoman of the conference and former member of the Federal Trade Commission.

Parents ignore screening software

Much of the technology trumpeted at the meeting has been available to parents for months and even years, and there are indications that parents have shown little interest in using it.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that works to protect computer users' civil liberties, says that all major providers of Internet access to consumers offer screening technology free or at a nominal cost. Those providers, serving 14 million households, include AOL, AT&T WorldNet, CompuServe, Prodigy and Erol's.

Kid-safe browser
Kid safe browsers like Click and Browse Jr. can protect young Internet users from online smut   

But a survey of 750 families by Family PC magazine found that only 26 percent use screening software, most of them because it is built into their Web browsers or offered by their online service providers.

Only 4 percent of parents use screening software when they buy and install it on their computers, the magazine found.

But industry officials said they would conduct an outreach and education campaign to increase the use of filters and other measures to screen out Web sites carrying smut.

"It's very important that the Internet become a family-friendly place," Disney Online president Jake Winebaum said at a news conference opening the convention.

'The beginning...not the end'

America Online, Disney Online, Time Warner, MCI and the Children's Partnership, a child advocacy group, are among the organizations that have announced new initiatives that include educating parents on the use of software that blocks access to adult-oriented sites.

Another group that includes Yahoo! Inc. and WebTV is promoting a new Web site, smartparent.com, that seeks to help parents educate themselves and their children about the Internet.

"People will be more familiar with what's available to them," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, an advocacy group that wants to make the Internet safer and more educational for children. "This is the beginning of the discussion, not the end of one."

AOL announced several enhancements to its system, including making the software easier to access when a parent begins each online session and adding a new category of restrictions for younger teens age 13 to 15.

"Our first parental controls were offered almost five years ago," said Case. "We think it's important for us to take a leadership role to shape a medium and make sure it can be positive."

Not everyone is happy about summit

Case said no legislation is necessary, but Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, introduced a bill last month that would require all commercial Web sites carrying material judged harmful to minors to block their access or face criminal penalties.

The conference came about after the Supreme Court struck down in June portions of Coats' earlier effort, the Communications Decency Act, which prohibited the display of indecent material on the Internet where kids could see it.

In July, President Clinton organized a meeting at the White House to find new solutions and warned the private sector to act fast or face new legislation.

On Monday, Clinton welcomed the industry summit. "I hope it works," he said. "I encouraged them to do it and I'm glad they're doing it."

Civil liberties and free-speech groups worry that screening software may block out useful material for kids.

"Parents must be truthfully informed about what these so-called blocking technologies would censor from their children, including a wide range of artistic, educational, political material," said David Mendoza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, an advocacy group against censorship.

'What a waste...'

Meanwhile, some conservative groups that participated in planning Monday's convention have become disillusioned and dropped out. At a news conference, groups including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association derided the meeting as a "love-in" for the Internet.

Said Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, "What a waste that the summit sponsors' primary goal is to do damage control for Internet service providers and not focus on the damage being done to children."

Correspondent Carl Rochelle and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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