The National Research Council report, released the day after lawmakers introduced yet another anti-porn bill targeting Web material, said no quick fix exists to guard children from unsuitable material on the Web. Instead, it suggested a complex combination of measures and promoted education as one of the best ways to shield children from porn.
"Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach--technical, legal, economic or educational--will be sufficient," the report said. "Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all of these elements."
Because the Internet provides easier access to a wider array of porn than any other medium, many groups and lawmakers have been quick to push bills that require filters or prohibit pornographic content that children might find. However, most attempts have failed on grounds that they violate free speech.
The report's authors didn't take a stand on the various bills or on filters themselves, but they said a single approach could give people a false sense of security.
The report also suggested that people have largely neglected the education component. The authors urged people to guard children from Web dangers with the same multi-pronged approach they use to protect them from busy streets or, say, swimming pools.
"Swimming pools can be dangerous for children," the report said. "To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim."
The report explored some interesting approaches to protecting children, including a public education campaign that could include older children and celebrities, or "wrapping" porn sites in plain pages that would be similar to brown paper wrappers found on Penthouse or Playboy on a newsstand. It also suggested incentives for Internet service providers that steer children away from porn, and it lamented the lack of prosecutions under obscenity laws.
The study, which was ordered by Congress, is one of the first comprehensive looks at protecting children from harmful content on the Web. It is intended as a guide for parents, teachers and lawmakers. The committee overseeing the study included researchers, librarians and executives at tech-related companies including Ziff Davis Media and the former Excite@Home.
The report comes a day after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled a bill designed to crack down on child porn by narrowing the definition of child porn and creating a database of images. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and others, is a response to a Supreme Court ruling a few weeks ago that a law prohibiting "virtual" images of children engaged in sexual acts was unconstitutional because it could outlaw films such as "Romeo and Juliet" or "American Beauty."
The new bill is the latest attempt to crack down on Web content in the name of protecting children. Other legislation, including the Communications Decency Act, contained provisions that tried to outlaw many types of pornographic content but were later deemed unconstitutional. And free-speech advocates are challenging yet another law, one that requires filters in all federally funded schools and libraries, on free-speech grounds.