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Net summit raises safety issues

As the debate continues at the Children's Internet Summit, questions abound regarding how to best keep children safe online.

As the debate continues in Washington at the Children's Internet Summit, questions abound regarding how to best keep children safe on the Internet, especially in the areas of parental control, filtering software, and educating children about avoiding sexual predators and obscene content.

Though government, industry, and communities all seem to agree that children should be protected from obscene content and sexual predators, lines are not yet drawn as to what constitutes "indecent" or "inappropriate" content, and responsibility for safeguarding children online is still being shuffled from group to group.

"We have to find a way to encourage the promise of the Internet while keeping the perils at bay," said Ernie Allen from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which recently set up a federally funded "CyberTip Line" to report illegal activity on the Net.

Participants at a "Safety Summit" today agreed that parents should be equipped with the knowledge to guide their children's experiences on the Internet, to educate them on the risks of encountering predators in chat rooms, and to monitor children's access to obscene material.

Larry Magid, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said, "We have to work with parents and children to develop critical thinking and judgment skills on a family level. Because all the filtering software in the world--unless you block kids completely from chat rooms and personal email--can't substitute for knowing how to deal with a potentially bad situation."

To that end, the Children's Partnership will disseminate a new information resource for families entitled "Keeping Kids Safe Online--Tips and Tools for Parents." The brochure will provide parents with information about the benefits and risks of the Internet as well as parenting tips for email and chat rooms. The brochure will be posted on the Children's Partnership site and distributed on paper nationally "through a variety of channels," according to the organization.

Donna Rice Hughes, communication director of advocacy group Enough is Enough, stressed that part of what is needed to make the Net safer for children is more aggressive law enforcement. "Obscenity is already illegal," she said. "And parents shouldn't have to deal with the illegal stuff, too. Their hands are full enough trying to deal with 'indecent' and 'inappropriate' content."

Marjorie Hodges, director of the computer policy and law program at Cornell University, pointed out that the difficult decisions come in drawing the line between obscene and indecent material. "We all have different opinions on where to draw the line there," she said. Generally, obscene material refers to more graphic, hard-core pornographic images.

Allen added that the key lies in encouraging the industry to take steps on its own, since law enforcement can't catch up with all the indecent material.

The industry is using the summit as a platform to announce its efforts toward protecting children, and it seems as though companies are taking the responsibility upon themselves.

For example, America Online and the Disney Corporation both announced new child-friendly features and parental controls on their sites. In addition, AT&T announced the creation of a children's page on its WorldNet service linked to Web sites appropriate for children. The company also continues to offer two Internet filters, Cyber Patrol and SurfWatch.

However, others contend that the industry is only making these inroads to avoid regulation by the government. There are currently four bills in Congress pending that would mandate that Internet service providers such as AT&T WorldNet offer filtering software. Some would require the ISPs to offer filters free to customers, while others would allow them to pass the cost of the software on to users.