The high-tech industry's involvement in the Children's Internet Summit is "voluntary"--like a groom's participation in a shotgun wedding.
Hanging over the industry's head is the threat of a new version of the Communications Decency Act such as one prepared by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana) or a mandatory rating scheme of the type proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington). President Clinton has called for "a V-chip for the Internet," like its television predecessor that is supposed to give parents the ability to program their sets to block out objectionable material. And the Federal Communications Commission has drafted regulations that would appear to require such a chip in personal computers.
The companies participating in the conference say that they are simply there to promote the common good, that a child-friendly Internet is good for business. "This summit should not be viewed as an attempt by industry to self-regulate in order to head off government regulation," America Online chairman Steve Case said at a news conference opening the summit yesterday.
But that's exactly how the conference is being viewed, both within and beyond the event. "We don't seem to be operating in a voluntary context," said Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Industry is operating under the threat of compulsion if they don't."
Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology said that heading off government regulation is a key reason his group is attending the summit. "We oppose a V-chip for the Internet" and other mandatory schemes, he said, "and the only way to avoid that is to bring these groups together" to develop a voluntary system.
The alternative, Berman said, might be something like the Communications Decency Act, which "was to have the government impose a draconian, wrong, and unconstitutional solution."
Other organizations are using the event as a forum to pursue broader social agendas. Some liberal groups such as the Center for Media Education favor restricting children's access to material that promotes the use of tobacco or alcohol. Some advocacy groups worry about "hate speech" online, others about sites promoting satanic worship. Conservative groups such as Enough is Enough and the Family Research Council are concerned mostly with sexually explicit material.
In this highly political environment, the Internet industry faces a tough choice: participate in the debate over content restriction or have the decisions made without any industry input.
Case said no pressure was necessary for AOL to participate in the summit: His customers want to feel that their children are safe online, and his employees want to feel pride in their work. And, he said, AOL's owners "want to see an appreciation in their investment."
Still, others point to the event's origins as a sign of the industry's sense of urgency over the prospect of government regulation.
David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, noted today that plans for the summit were announced "a mere three weeks" after the Communications Decency Act was struck down.
The White House wanted something to replace the CDA, he said, and suddenly "we had representatives of industry talking about doing what the Supreme Court had just said the government cannot do."