The three-day Children's Internet Summit that opened today served as a high-profile forum for diametrically opposed groups to debate what can and should be accessible on the Internet.
Conservative groups including the Family Research Council and Enough is Enough along with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana)--who has proposed a scaled-down version of the Communications Decency Act--are billing the summit as a public relations event for the Internet rather than a forum for legitimate solutions.
Faced with pressure from the Clinton administration, proposed new legislation, and various customer concerns, the online industry is offering its own proposals to ease public fears. (See related story)
Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, cautioned during a press conference that "this could be a very good week or a very bad week for America's children." He added that the conference was moving away from its original mission statement, which is to find ways to protect children from explicit sexual content and sexual predators online.
"It is a good time in America to be a child predator," he said. "He can access every school, every library, and every home through the Internet. The situation is so bad that it ought to be regulated by the government."
Bauer, who said that he believed parents are not equipped to handle the problem on their own, added that summit participants should heed the First Lady's advice in her book, It Takes a Village, that to raise a child is a responsibility that extends well beyond the parents and the home.
Coats echoed Bauer's views, saying that there is a "dark side" to the Internet "full of unrestrained pornographic material pouring into every home and every school at a click of a mouse."
These groups believe that self-regulation by the industry and filtering software is not enough. Coats, coauthor of the first CDA, hopes that his second effort will pass Congress and satisfy the Supreme Court's constitutional concerns.
But at the other end of the debate, 11 civil liberties, free speech, academic, and journalistic organizations announced today the Internet Free Expression Alliance. Among the group's founders are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They all "share a common interest in opposing the adoption of techniques and standards that could limit the vibrancy and openness of the Internet as a communications medium."
The group opposes "filtering" techniques that already have been implemented "in ways inconsistent with free-speech principles, impeding the ability of Internet users to publish and receive constitutionally protected expression."
In support of the alliance's objections to "filtering software," EPIC today released a study in which it tested 100 searches using a traditional search engine and the same searches using the Web-based Net Shepherd Family Search engine. In Internet searches on such entries as "American Red Cross," "Smithsonian Institute," and "Christianity," the report stated that the family-friendly engine filtered out almost 90 percent of relevant findings.
"We have to realize that what a lot of these products create is not the Internet," said David Sobel, legal counsel for EPIC. "The value of the medium risks being destroyed if filters become ubiquitous."
What most members objected to was that parents and users don't have full disclosure of how the filters work, what criteria they are based on, and what their limitations are.
Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU, added that even though filters are now being discussed on a voluntary basis, the fear is that there will be a slow move to adopt the software involuntarily by default settings imposed by ISPs, libraries, or other parties operating on a level above the average user.
"These proposals make changes in the fundamental architecture of the Internet, making it a censor-friendly environment and opening the path to the next CDA and a requirement to rate all sites," Steinhardt said.