Protect children from cyberporn On-line promises: Companies try to move in right direction before government intervenes.

December 07, 1997

IT'S FAR TOO EASY to find pornography on the Internet. Begin an on-line search, type in a scatological term or word that might be construed as a reference to sex and watch what appears on the screen.

Visit the Internet address of one of the most disgusting responses to your query and you will be greeted by a promise of sights to satisfy even the most prurient of interests. All you have to do to enter this porno world is check the box claiming you are 18 or older.

Previous efforts to get on-line computer services to make it more difficult to reach adult-oriented Internet sites have been disappointing. Congress passed a law to force the companies to do more, but the Supreme Court in June ruled the legislation aimed at children infringed on adults' free-speech rights.

Realizing their victory might be short-lived, the on-line service companies this week announced steps they will take voluntarily to make it more difficult for children to access cyber-porn. It's a smart move. The language of Communications Decency Act was so broad it could have been used to prohibit Internet material about breast cancer or AIDS or depictions of classical artwork that include nude images. But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., says he has fixed the language problem.

The Internet companies may not be doing enough to head off Senator Coats and greater government regulation, but at least they're doing something. America Online, for example, will provide a welcome screen button that steers users to screening and other parental controls, expand a blocking option that allows parents to restrict on-line material based on their children's age and begin a service in which users can immediately notify AOL about improper "chat room" encounters or e-mail.

Other on-line companies are taking lesser steps, but they all vowed to work more closely with authorities to track down pedophiles who use the Internet. The computer companies also said better software is being developed that will allow parents to control what their children can access via their home computer. At the same time, though, they noted a Family PC magazine survey that showed only a fourth of 750 parents polled used screening software.

It's an important point. As it is with TV, parents too often shirk responsibility for what their children see. Surfing the Internet is typically done alone. But parents who want to know where their children are going might find it useful to occasionally tag along for the ride.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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