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Filters Can’t Block Out the Real World

Recently, I found myself debating a friend over how best to shield his children from books, movies, television and now Internet sites that, as a parent, he thinks are inappropriate.

Although I may be exaggerating a bit, he basically wants an electronic magic wand that makes bad stuff--or at least what he thinks represents bad stuff--disappear. I told him I have less faith in the magic and more in the discriminating taste of my kids (who are older than his). Their sensitivities at least were honed with our parental help.

Yet I am sympathetic. There’s a glut of ugliness in the world, and I have no desire to see kids rushed to face it. That’s why we see so much ado about V-chips for televisions, demands for more restrictive entertainment ratings and frustration over offensive song lyrics.

Now comes the Internet, a medium with a seemingly endless capacity to frighten parents and legislators alike.

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I have this empty feeling that in our search for ways to make parenting easier, we’re ready to accept some pretty blunt electronic instruments.

What these electronic tools do is block.

Eliminate pornography and life will be better for me because my kids won’t run into it, is the theory. Block my children’s access to discussion about violence or alternative lifestyles, and they will not be tempted.

And where demand incubates, the marketplace hatches:

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* Filters. Developers are making software for individual computers that blocks access to a variety of Web sites. Some of these are controversial because they block more than the user may expect.

Internet access companies are beginning to adopt such filters so they can advertise themselves as family-safe. That means families might never know what they don’t get to see.

* Regulation. In recent weeks, there have been more notices that governments, Japan’s and Dubai’s among them, are considering software filters to block indecent sites. To me, countries have never been a great source of guidance on what material should and should not be disseminated.

* Decency act: Next month, the Supreme Court justices will hear arguments about whether the Communications Decency Act, passed last year amid a storm of congressional hysteria about Internet pornography, should take effect. Among other things, the act restricts publication of “indecent” material on the Net and establishes grounds for prosecution.

* Commercial online services. They long have advertised themselves as offering relatively safe content. But this promise does not cover the unsupervised opinion in chat rooms and bulletin board services, and that is scary to many parents.

* Ratings. There are efforts by a number of Internet industry forces, including Microsoft, to create rating systems for Web sites, as with movies and television. The proposals are for self-rating by Web publishers, following a scheme being used for electronic games.

My bet is that pornographers will gladly disclose their triple-X ratings and go happily about their publishing. And others will be forced to self-rate in order, say, to get listed by a directory service or to be accessible through a particular browser. It’ll turn out to be a business.

On the other side of all this are the anti-censorship purists who oppose any government regulation of the Net, who want to ensure that all voices can be heard. They oppose software-filtering programs in general and specifically those that purport to make the Internet safe for family use but actually block more than they need to.

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The Internet has been abuzz lately, for example, over the sale of a program called CyberSitter because, in addition to blocking pornography, it also blocks sites that advertise access to pirated software or display scenes of violence. CyberSitter even blacks out the site of the National Organization for Women because it lists links to gay and lesbian sites.

CyberSitter developer Brian Millburn credibly argues that he is filling a need he sees among parents, who not only don’t share the complaints of his critics, but want even more restrictions for their $50.

With nearly a million sales of his program, he says, “the real question about free speech is whose free speech we need to protect--the pornographers’ or the parents’ right to control what comes into their home.”

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Why shouldn’t I control what my kids see? argues my friend. Why should I oppose software that will do it for me? he asks.

These are awfully crude tools, I say, and reflective more of someone else’s judgment than mine about what should be in my home. We’re not even sure, as a society, whom we want to protect; all kids under 18 years old are not the same. Further, the experience of teens is far different from that of 7-year-olds.

What’s more important to me is education in the home. That includes exposure to the unknown and unwanted. My contribution as a parent is the teaching of values through guidance.

Just clicking a software button to eliminate half the world doesn’t make it go away.

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I don’t love some of the television my children choose to watch, but I am happier to have them decide on their own that it’s not for them than I would have been to simply switch it off by fiat. My children have eschewed listening to lyrics that demean women not because I told them it was bad or because William Bennett scolded Time Warner, but because they decided it doesn’t fit in their lives.

And then there is the problem of opening the front door and actually entering a world in which gangs, graffiti, harassment, abuse, crime and bullies are real. How long can we protect without informing? As a parent, I want my kids more prepared, not less, to face reality.

If you’re sophisticated enough at computer code, you’ll find software programs that can supposedly allow you to specify what to ban in your home.

That’ll give you a personalized magic wand.

In my home, we’ve preferred another way: building taste by one painful discussion atop another.


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