One of the Columbine High School shooters had a hate-filled home page on AOL's site. Does AOL bear any responsibility for the tragedy at Columbine or for the actions of those who may be influenced to commit violent or criminal acts by the content available at the company's service?
What about the liability of those who post bomb-making how-to guides on the Internet?
The greatest asset of the Internet is that it brings the world to our fingertips. Unfortunately the world can be an ugly place at times, and the wrong information in the hands of those who are too young or too unstable to handle it can have catastrophic consequences.
Parents and school teachers and administrators are not alone in their concerns about the Internet. Employers are growing increasingly concerned as well. Web abuse in the workplace is most likely not fatal, but can be very damaging to the organization in lost productivity and legal liability. An estimated 20 to 60 percent of Web usage is not work-related. Hours spent trading stocks online, reading and sending email jokes, listening to music, and checking sports scores cost businesses dearly in employee productivity and overburdened corporate networks.
Legal liability is becoming a greater concern. An employee offended by the sexually explicit pictures and content a coworker views online could sue the employer for sexual harassment. The actions of a single employee can not only greatly damage a company's brand, but also cost the firm substantial amounts of dollars in court costs, damages, or settlement fees.
As we become increasingly dependent on the Internet for information, commerce, and community, these problems become more pronounced. While I'm not a lawyer, I wouldn't count on the First Amendment right to free speech getting repealed to prevent the online publication of objectionable content. Whose definition of "objectionable" would we use?
A better solution is to provide the education, family, and corporate markets with effective tools, such as Internet filtering, to restrict or block access to certain Web content, a solution equivalent to requiring I.D. to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or locating adult videos in separate sections of videostores. Alternatively, schools or businesses could create a "clean" network that only allowed access to content that had been preselected as appropriate for the particular audience. A company could identify sites it would permit employees to access instead of trying to sort out inappropriate content from the entire Web. Although this option is less scalable and limits most of the benefits of the Web, it would allow the most protection.
We will also see some Web sites and portals strongly positioning themselves as family- or kid-friendly.
In the physical world, laws, rules, community pressure, and tony neighborhoods offer some measure of protection. The Internet is still a wild and woolly place, offering users few options if they wish to minimize their exposure to certain content. As the it matures, tools and communities that allow for greater control over the online experience will emerge, but let's not forget that in our thousands of years of experience, we have been unable to eradicate violence and corruption from the physical world. The taming of the Internet will happen over time, providing individuals, businesses, parents, and administrators the opportunity to help create "safer" access to the Web.