This week's Washington summit on keeping kids safe online did parents a disservice by focusing the debate on filtering software.
Despite its stated mission, the conference became a distracting, familiar sideshow of inside-the-Beltway ideologues vying to be the enforcers of public morality. The so-called dialogue has been little more than a verbal shoving match over which set of values we should cram down the throats of all Americans, parent and child alike.
Instead, the first Children's Internet Summit should have capitalized on its historic opportunity to determine how to effectively enforce existing laws that protect children from the gravest dangers online or off.
It's time for a little realistic talk about protecting children online, and we should start by relegating filters to where they belong: in voluntary use by individuals only, period.
As a nation, we've been arguing over what constitutes smut and what's decent for as long as we've existed. The filtering software debate, which has only been on for about a year, can't hope to reconcile the vast differences in what each of us consider acceptable for our children.
This is not to belittle parents' legitimate concerns about their children viewing religious, social, or political materials they deem inappropriate, but we've got to set some priorities. And our first and most basic obligation is to protect our young from a basic level of physical harm.
Like real life, the Internet has its fair share of wackos and red-light districts. It's not entirely safe to let kids venture into cyberspace alone, no more than when they sit down to watch television or walk out the door to play. Even the most protective parent can't peer over a child's shoulder all the time, especially as schools, libraries, and other public spaces offer Internet connections.
Since the Supreme Court rejected the federal Communications Decency Act as unconstitutional this summer, the Clinton administration has touted filtering software as the solution for concerned parents. Eager to avoid the prospect of government regulation, Internet companies embraced this technology, which "rates" content for suitability to certain ages and limits what can be displayed on a particular computer.
But even the tightest filters can't catch everything. The Electronic Privacy Information Center this week released a survey in which a filtered search site that screened out anywhere from 94 to 99 percent of all possible answers still returned a parody of a Dr. Seuss book based on the details of a famous, grisly murder.
At the same time, filtering and rating software can be too powerful. The EPIC study also found that a filtered search site which claimed to have reviewed 97 percent of all English language sites on the Web found only about 3 percent of them "non-objectionable." Moreover, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and a teen free speech group called Peacefire has found that many filters contain biases against entire groups of people and classes of information.
The result? Neither liberals nor conservatives agree with the Clinton administration that filtering is a good way to protect children. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with several other free speech and media organizations, this week created the Internet Free Expression Alliance to oppose pressure from the federal government to "voluntarily" screen content.
Conservative groups devoted equal platitude to their position that filters don't go far enough. You know the rhetoric is bordering on the absurd when Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council starts praising ideas from It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton's book on child rearing. At its publication last year, Bauer wrote "[W]hat she means by 'village' is really more Big Government. The village cannot raise a child." I suppose that is, unless it's your Big Government initiative.
The bottom line: Even the most benign rating system is going to force someone's moral, political, or social agenda on someone else.
We'll never agree on a single international, public morality, and we shouldn't have to. Filtering software has to be optional on top of basic, minimum standards of protection that the public agrees upon.
We already have those. We agree it's wrong to sexually solicit children, to sexually abuse or exploit minors. In fact, according to Interpol Secretary General Raymond Kendall, nearly every nation on the earth has a similar set of laws protecting children.
The White House is to be commended for including Kendall and other law enforcement officers in the discussion at the summit. It's admirable that the Senate funded and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will run a cybertip line for reporting online crimes against children. However, their small afternoon role should have been the focus of the conference. "We must remember," as Kendall says, "that under the United Nations Convention On the Rights of the Child, the rights of the child must take precedence over all other considerations."
Right now, we should concentrate on protecting those rights.
Margie Wylie writes about the good, bad, and ugly of the Information Age Wednesdays in Perspectives.