Modern Anxiety: What to Do When Smut Rides Internet? : Admirably, Senate acts to shield kids, but legislation may be unworkable

Two recent cases in which troubled teen-agers were lured away from their homes via computer chat lines are spurring efforts in Congress for government to take a more active role in regulating cyberspace. The Senate, as part of a sweeping telecommunications bill, on Thursday passed a provision to curb transmission of indecent material over the Internet and restrict children's access within the global computer network.

Unfortunately, the provision is little more than a reflexive attempt to fill a regulatory void with legislation aimed at the content of computer information. That attempt, while politically seductive, could prove to be unworkable, unenforceable and ultimately unconstitutional.

Many a bad law has grown from lack of understanding. And if the legislative remedies now pending in Congress are any indication, there is a dearth of sophistication about emerging computer technology and its profound implications for society. The naivete is understandable. For ordinary home computer users, the Internet--made up of 50,000 computer links worldwide connecting 30 million individual users--is unfamiliar territory, and this is true for many members of Congress as well. The complexity of the Computer Age does not lend itself to old-fashioned regulatory mechanisms such as, say, the Federal Communications Commission granting or withholding broadcast licenses.

Many consider the Internet--assuming one can afford the computer hardware and on-line fees--to be the closest thing there is to a free market in ideas. To the information-hungry, the Internet offers substantial rewards, as can be attested to by anyone who has surfed the net and found gems ranging from guitar chords to mathematical formulas to gardening tips. However, the net has a dark side, too.

The stories of the two teen-agers, Tara Nobel and Daniel Montgomery, who ran away from home after making contacts on computer chat lines, have increased the computer-abuse anxiety of law enforcement and parents across the country. Inevitably, with so many voters concerned, the attention of politicians follows.

Sen. James J. Exon (D-Neb.) is the sponsor of the Communications Decency Act of 1995, passed Thursday as an amendment to the Senate telecommunications bill. His measure would make it a crime to create and transmit "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent" materials on commercial computer networks or the Internet. Violators would be punished with fines of up to $100,000 and/or up to two years in prison. Exon argues that the legislation would protect children from so-called "red light" districts on the Internet. It now goes to the House as part of the telecommunications bill.

We fully agree with all who demand that children be shielded from pornographic words and images. However, Exon's measure falls short on some key points. For one, it does not distinguish between material that merely may be "indecent" or in bad taste and hard-core pornography; that failure to distinguish could have a chilling effect on free speech and raises a host of constitutional issues. Also, the provision--designed to restrict children's access to indecent materials on chat lines or indecent pictures supplied by commercial providers--recognizes no difference between minors and consenting adults on the Internet as a whole.

Another problem is one of definition. Obscenity is defined by the Supreme Court as material that offends the average person of the community or taken as a whole is lacking in "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." The use of this standard is difficult enough even when applied to a very limited community; could it be applied when the "community" is nationwide? And would it be effective in controlling the literally thousands of international computer webs available to U.S. computer users?

A point of overriding importance is that existing law already prohibits any attempt by an adult to lure a minor into sexual activity and bans all child pornography.

There are clearly alternatives to Internet censorship that at the same time would protect children. SurfWatch Software, a Los Altos company, has developed software that bars children from Internet areas that contain sexually explicit materials. Commercial outfits such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy have mechanisms for parents to tailor their children's user profiles. Indeed, in the final analysis it is parents who can best judge what is appropriate for their kids--at the movies, on television or on the Internet.

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