When the Supreme Court freed the Internet from government censorship in June, it left lawmakers, the online industry and parents with a problem -- protecting children from online pornography without treading on adults' First Amendment rights.
"I don't want to have to police the kids with everything they do," said Diane Roberts, a middle school social studies teacher and mother of two from Ijamsville.
So Roberts chose technology to handle the problem. Her daughters, 11 and 13, surf the World Wide Web through Kidznet, a new Internet gateway from Clark Internet Services of Columbia. It's designed to keep youngsters away from sex sites, news groups and chat sessions.
Now, Roberts says, "I feel comfortable letting my kids use an Internet service and not having to monitor them,"
This kind of filtering has become a hot topic since the justices overturned the Communications Decency Act, suggesting that technology could fulfill the law's objective.
President Clinton, originally a supporter of the CDA, is to meet today with industry leaders, teachers, parents and librarians to develop concrete proposals to protect children without infringing on the rights of adults.
"We don't need to reinvent the wheel here and we don't need a v-chip for the Internet. We have tools out there which are 100 percent available," said Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization that opposes formal Internet restrictions.
But a look at current technology shows that the perfect electronic baby sitter remains elusive.
It's not hard for inventive youngsters to outsmart filtering services such as Kidznet and wind up at sites that offer raunchy photographs.
Also, software that filters content for youngsters often throws out the good with the bad.
In fact, Web surfers using the popular CYBERsitter software couldn't read The Sun's online story about the Supreme Court's decision overturning the CDA.
The article contained a variety of questionable words, including "pornography," "sex" and "adult."
"That's the imperfection of the technology that exists today," said Marc Kanter, vice president of marketing for Solid Oak Software Inc., which publishes CYBERsitter. "I think there will be better solutions in the future, but there's no way it's ever going to be perfect."
There are three approaches to protecting children from Internet pornography. The first, like Kidznet, is an Internet service provider whose system won't let users access Web pages on its list of objectionable sites.
The second relies on programs that parents can buy for their home computers, with colorful names like CYBERsitter, SurfWatch, NetNanny and NetSnitch. Some block access to lists of forbidden sites -- and to Web pages that contain forbidden words. Others let parents know where the kids have been.
While these technologies are available now, the third approach would be more flexible -- but far more difficult to implement.
It combines a universal rating system for Web sites with software allowing parents to block sites with ratings they don't like.
This solution is patterned after the "v-chip," a device that will be installed in new TV sets next year that allows parents to block shows based on ratings.
All three solutions raise serious questions. Web filtering programs, for example, are notorious for blocking out legitimate sites. Baltimore County librarians testing Cyber Patrol software were dismayed when it blocked the home page of their Essex branch, according to assistant director Lynn Lockwood. The software objected to the "sex" in Essex.
Not surprisingly, free speech advocates oppose filtering programs in public libraries.
"We think these programs can be very helpful for parents. We think it's a different issue altogether when a public agency such as a public library decides to use one of these software programs," said Ann Beeson, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Librarians say they're caught between their dedication to the First Amendment and their responsibility to protect children from adult content.
For example, a Texas law forbidding the "sale, distribution, or display of harmful material to minors" convinced the Austin library to install filtering software on all its computers.
The Boston Public Library compromised with unfiltered computers for adults but filtered computers for kids unless their parents agree to free access.
With a few exceptions, Maryland libraries have not filtered Web access. Carroll County did so, but officials said they were primarily interested in keeping youngsters from monopolizing the PC's while using Internet "chat" features. Most other library systems have not followed suit.
"When you buy these information filtering packages, you buy somebody else's view of the world. You buy somebody else's morals," said Patricia Wallace, chief of information access at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library.