In the first government Internet content effort since the death of the Communications Decency Act, President Clinton told parents today that technology, not another federal law, is the best way to keep their children from peeking at porn and other "objectionable" online material.
After a private meeting with about 40 Net industry executives, a handful of Congress members, parents groups, and civil liberties advocates, Clinton held a press conference to announce a three-point plan to keep kids off the Net's undesirable areas. The official agenda includes enforcing existing child pornography and obscenity laws in cyberspace, endorsing the deployment of blocking software and Net content rating systems, and improving parental education about how to use such technologies at home.
"We must recognize that responsibility for our children's safety will rest largely with their parents," the president said. "With a combination of technology, law enforcement, and parental responsibility we have the best chance to ensure that the Internet will be both safe for our children and the greatest educational resource we have ever known."
Clinton announced the administration's new "hands-off" strategy to curb kids' access to adult online material while standing alongside Vice President Al Gore, America Online CEO Steve Case, and National PTA president Lois Jean White.
"The president stated very clearly that blocking software and rating technologies are preferential to regulation," said Shabbir Safdar of the Voters Telecommunications Watch and democracy.net. "It's great news because these tools are 100 percent available today. This it exactly what we said two years ago when we were trying to derail the CDA."
Those in the private meeting will now be part of a working group to accomplish the goals laid out today. Members include the Center for Democracy and Technology, American Library Association, Center for Media Education, blocking software makers such as SurfWatch, and Congress members such as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), who is drafting a bill that could place liabilities on content providers that don't rate online content.
The White House "toolkit" for making the Net "family-friendly" included filtering software, which blocks sites based on keywords, and the Platform for Internet Content Selection proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium. PICS lets Web developers label sites with invisible tags that indicate if their content is sexual, violent, or drug-related, for example. Users can then adopt a ratings system created by an organization they trust and program their browsers to allow only sites that meet the designated standards.
Clinton also noted that the FBI has doubled its computer crimes staff to crack down on online predators and track down distributors of kiddie porn.
Groups that vigorously fought the CDA applauded today's action by the White House. But the optimism of the diverse attendees was also laced with future caveats, such as parents' willingness to use the technologies, filtering software's habit of banning artistic or educational sites, and whether legislators will attempt to regulate online content before the working group can have an impact.
"I'm concerned that we won't have the time to come up with available solutions before people start putting unworkable legislation in the hopper," said Judith Krug, director for the ALA's office for intellectual freedom, which has been fighting off local efforts to require that public libraries install software on all Net stations. (See related story)
"We need to move forward and continue helping people become comfortable and familiar with the Net while finding good sites for kids to use," she added.
Congress members who fought the CDA were also at the meeting. Most said the administration was finally on the right track, but that Congress should be careful to not pass another unconstitutional law like the CDA.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), a member of the new working group who has proposed a bill that would require Internet services to offer blocking software to customers. "The PICS standard has the potential to be valuable but can also have adverse results because censorship becomes more possible. We need look out for unintended consequences."
Others worry that blocking software could be mandated by the government in some way. For example, a proposal released by SafeSurf today stated that "posting unlabeled adult material to an area that has declared itself safe for children or tampering with another's label shall be a severe criminal assault on the rights of the receiver.
"Tampering with another's label shall be crime," it added. "These publishers may be criminally prosecuted for subverting a rating system to entice children to harmful material."
David Sobel, staff counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Murray's legislative draft, which includes similar provisions to SafeSurf's proposal, would be dangerous if embraced by the White House.
"This whole idea of having criminal penalties attached to the labeling process is not very different than the CDA itself. It puts a threat of criminal prosecution on a speaker depending on the government's view of whether the content is harmful to children, even though the speech may be constitutionally protected, unlike [obscenity]" he added.
Despite today's turnout and the White House's growing antiregulatory policy toward the Net, CDA-like legislation could still crop up. Even the PTA's White threatened that if industry self-regulation and technology fail, then legislation might be needed.
But the point of the working group is to prevent Congress from jumping the gun again. "I opposed the CDA. Maybe it would have been easier to start here, but now we're here and we can do intelligent things," Lofgren said.
Added Gordon Ross, CEO of Net Nanny: "The president realized that if he gave technologists the requirements of what government and parents need, we can usually come up with it. We were told today that the software we put on the market needs to be easy to use because the moms and dads don't understand this technology now." (See related story)
Those who supported the CDA, such as Enough is Enough, were also invited to attend. The antiporn activist group was happy to see the White House picking up where the CDA ended but said not enough focus was placed on the role of Internet service providers.
"What we didn't hear is the importance of the ISPs implementing the blocking technology at the server end to create kids' channels that parents can option out of or the importance of removing illegal material from their own services," said Donna Rice Hughes, the spokeswoman for Enough is Enough.
Clinton is expected to call another meeting for the working group in two months, prior to its two-day "Families Online Summit" in October.