Porn, kids, the Internet

July 01, 2004

NO ONE should favor minors viewing pornography on the Internet. The tricky question is how to most effectively prevent that without violating Americans' free-speech rights or unduly compromising the vitality that the medium derives from its openness.

Of course, the ideal agents for preventing youths from viewing harmful things -- on the Internet, on TV or in person -- likely are their parents. We note that obvious point because it too often gets lost in the long-running legal tangle over protecting children from porn. In providing an Internet connection to their children, parents too often have no clue how it's being used -- or about filters they can use to try to keep unwanted influences at bay.

Fortunately, even the U.S. Supreme Court seems not only aware of such rapidly improving software but also to believe these tools in parents' hands may be better at blocking pornography than new laws. In an important ruling Tuesday, the court upheld an injunction on criminal and civil penalties for operators of commercial porn Web sites that don't actively restrict minors' access by various means. Instead, it asked a lower court to determine whether Internet filters would be more effective with less damage to the First Amendment.

This week's ruling was the latest blow to the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), itself the successor to a 1996 Internet decency act that had been struck down as too broadly limiting online access. The latest ruling makes sense because COPA likely would push many more Internet pornographers offshore, beyond the reach of U.S. law, where many of these Web sites already originate. It also respects the First Amendment because it suggests the best protection for minors is not mandated restrictions on content at its source -- which, of course, this newspaper opposes -- but parental protection at the receiving end.

A year ago, we were mildly troubled by the court's decision upholding another law, the Children's Internet Protection Act, which said public libraries receiving federal funds must use Internet filters. As libraries across the nation scramble to meet this week's deadline for compliance, some are simply opting against the filters and the aid in favor of keeping a close eye on their computers. In any case, our view is that mandated library use of filters should only be for minors and involve filters that can be disabled for adults, that disclose what they block, that don't block content excessively, and that can be customized for varying community standards.

Much the same logic could follow from this week's ruling: As filtering software improves, its use in homes ought to be strongly encouraged, but not imposed, and parents ought to be able to receive effective, affordable versions with their Internet connections. This is a problem that doesn't readily lend itself to an acceptable legal mandate. The court was right to suggest a technological solution, however still flawed, and, by implication, to place the burden of responsibility on parents.

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