Parents, not Congress, must police cybersmut We keep failing to take into account is that we're dealing with a construct unlike any that's ever come before.

October 22, 1998|By Leonard Pitts

I WAS on my way to the White House when I encountered the topless woman.

I'm bopping merrily along and suddenly she's just . . . there, before my eyes, engaging in a rather intimate act of self-gratification, if you catch my drift. And I realize -- hey, I don't need a house to fall on me -- that I've taken the mother of all wrong turns.

Wasn't difficult to figure out what had gone wrong: I had mistyped the Web site address of the real White House by three measly letters. So my computer delivered me instead to this ersatz "White House" of carnality and capitalism, where naked women are "first ladies" and for $19.99 a month, I'm promised access to all the "young teens, hot lesbians and hard-core nymphomaniacs" I can handle.

I've had this happen before. Once, I ran a search for Stan Lee, the comic book writer. Stumbled upon a pornographic Web site run by some guy with a similar name.

Cyberfilth

One can hardly turn around in cyberspace without accidentally tripping over naked people doing naughty things. You don't even want to talk about how easy it is to find such stuff on purpose, especially for a determined, computer-literate kid. It is, well . . . child's play to find smut on the Internet.

So you'd think I'd be cheering the new legislation designed to make cyberspace child-safe. Actually, I'm ambivalent, even skeptical.

The Child Online Protection Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives, mandates up to six months in jail and fines of up to $50,000 for anyone who makes sexually explicit material available to young Web surfers.

An earlier attempt to restrict online smut was rejected by the Supreme Court last year. Too broad an infringement on the First Amendment, it said. Assuming it's signed into law, I wouldn't be surprised to see this latest effort suffer the same fate. But it's not the free speech aspects of the bill that make me dubious. Rather, it's this sense I have that the whole thing is a wasted effort.

See, I have a healthy respect for the ability of a computer-savvy young person to get around online restrictions. And an even healthier respect for the youngster's willingness to disregard legal ones.

Granted, it should not be so easy to inadvertently cross paths with porn. If there's a reliable way to discourage that, I'm all for it. But let's say a sex Web site requires a customer to verify that he is 18 or older before entering. Does anyone really think that your average hormonal adolescent, having come this far in search of dirty pictures, is going to balk at lying about his age? Can a site's managers be held liable for making bad stuff available to minors if the minors in question sought the stuff out and then lied to gain access? And what of those sites that originate beyond American borders?

The medium, I suspect, will always be several steps ahead of the law.

Dirty ideas

The thing we keep failing to take into account is that we're dealing with a construct unlike any that's ever come before, one which theoretically allows virtually anyone on Earth to reach, or be reached by, virtually anyone else on Earth, under cover of mutual anonymity. The Net may be a godsend for research and communication, but it's also, by its very nature, tailor-made for the dispensation of dirt.

So you'll forgive me if I'm doubtful of Congress' ability to regulate cyberspace. I'm reminded of the V-Chip, the new technology that's supposed to censor what children watch on TV, and it strikes me as troubling the way law and technology are finding it necessary to step into a breach once occupied by parents.

Of course, parents are often absent now -- working too hard, or just flat disinterested. So I guess we do what we can.

But I'm glad to say that in my house, federal law is still superseded by paternal law.

Meaning that the computer is kept in my office. And any kid caught ogling a "first lady" better make darn sure her name is Hillary.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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