Online smut: Too easy for kids to find? Pornography: An innocent search can lead children to X-rated Web sites.

May 04, 1998|By M. L. Lyke | M. L. Lyke,SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Neighborhood stores sell pornographic magazines from behind counters. Corner video shops separate X-rated films from PG and PG-13 fare. In comparison, accessing pornography on the free-wheeling Internet is child's play.

One mouse click away lie explicit images of nude women. And with an estimated 9.4 million children now surfing the Net, many parents and educators are worried.

"In the private sector, we make sure kids can't access adult movies, but because we can't get our hands around the Internet, we've kind of let it go," says Dina Hovde, spokeswoman for the Washington Family Council, a nonprofit communication, research and education group based in Bellevue, Wash.

"We're seeing technology run ahead of ethics here."

Type in "sex" on a search engine and you'll come up with more than 26,000 sites, among them explicit sex links promising live action. Type in "hardcore" and you'll get almost 4,000 sites on "fetish sex," "bondage" and other X-rated subjects.

But you don't have to go looking for sex to find it.

Search for "kitty"

A child typing "kitty" into the Webcrawler search engine will quickly find the Persian Kitty, a pornographic link-up site produced in the Seattle that boasts "Purrs, claws and curiosity will get you anywhere."

It connects to some 1,000 adult links, with graphically illustrated teasers boasting "free real amateur teens" and "free live extreme hardcore."

Searches for "toys," "Bambi," "wrestling" or other seemingly innocent topics turn up similar porn sites. And children need only click the e-mail icon to call unsolicited messages that may contain explicit images.

"Anyone who knows how to use a search engine and spell can find pornography on the Internet," says Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media, a national non-profit interfaith organization based in New York.

But even misspellings and simple address errors can land the unsuspecting in an online Tenderloin. A Net surfer typing in "whitehouse.com" instead of "whitehouse.gov" - the official White House site - will end up with patched-together pictures of a nude "president" and "first lady."

One more click, and the surfer is cavorting with a naked "White House intern."

Many porno sites post a warning to minors stating they must be 18 to proceed. But even these home pages often contain full frontal nudity, and there's little to stop an 8-year-old from posing as an 18-year-old online, or lifting a parent's credit card to continue onto "members-only" scenes. Many parents and educators maintain that governmental controls are needed to control online porn, which represents an estimated 1 percent of Internet content.

In a 1997 nationwide telephone survey by Chilton Research Services, 80 percent of respondents answered "yes" when asked whether government should take steps to control access to pornographic material on the Internet to protect children under 18.

Freedom of speech

Free-speech groups have a different take.

"It is not acceptable under the First Amendment to prevent adults from seeing constitutionally protected material on the grounds of preventing minors from seeing that material," says Doug Honig, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

"It means you are lowering the level of communication on the Net to what's acceptable for children."

One major attempt at regulating cyberporn, the 1996 Communications Decency Act, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last summer. Two bills are now before Congress. One is a modified bill sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, that would ban Internet material deemed "harmful to minors."

Another is a bill by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, rTC and co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, that would require schools or libraries using federal funds for Internet hookups to use filtering programs to block access to adult material.

The ACLU has threatened to challenge the McCain bill if it passes. But Murray calls it a reasonable approach to a widespread problem.

"It's a whole new world out there," says Murray. "I think a lot of people have no idea what their kids are looking at when they're home alone." One unlikely contributor in the debate over access to pornography is the so-called "king of cyberporn," Seth Warshavsky, 25-year-old president of Seattle's Internet Entertainment Group.

In February, Warshavsky pitched a plan to Congress to cordon off an adults-only domain on the Internet. This separate domain, accessed through age-verification screening, would use .adult rather than .com or .org or other common Internet suffixes. It would also make IEG's porno sites that much easier to find.

Warshavsky, who registers his porn sites with companies selling filtering programs for the Net, describes his motives as both moral and monetary.

"If I had kids, I wouldn't want them to look at that kind of content," he says.

"But an adult should be able to - that's part of what our country's about."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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