by Larry Magid
The March 22nd ruling by judge Lowell Reed Jr. heralds the end of a long and torturous battle over Congress’s ill-fated 1998 Children’s Online Protection Act. The law, if it had ever been allowed to go into effect, would impose a $50,000 fine to any commercial website that allowed minors to access material deemed “harmful to minors.” The idea was to require sites that had such material to require a credit card or other documentation that would establish that the site visitor was an adult.
I testified as an expert witness at the original trial on behalf of the ACLU. My job was to explain to the judge that there are other methods parents can use to control what their kids do on the web. Though imperfect, Internet filters are a relatively effective means to block kids from visiting sites that parents – not the government – deem to be inappropriate for their child. As founder of SafeKids.com (www.safekids.com), I had spent a great deal of time looking into effective and ineffective ways to protect kids on the net. I’m currently co-director of BlogSafety.com (www.blogsafety.com), a forum where parents can discuss child safety.
There were several problems with the law. For one thing, lots of kids have credit and debit cards so it might have not have even been effective in the first place. Second, the term “harmful to minors” is a bit vague. Some might argue that a site that shows the proper use of a condom is harmful to minors. Others might call it a life saving service. The law would only affect material that is legal for adult consumption. There are already laws on the books against obscenity and child pornography.
One of my fellow witnesses at the original trial represented a site that provides sex education for people with disabilities. He testified that his site did have material that could be construed as “harmful” to (some) minors but that it also provided its adult and teenage users with vital information that could have an enormous benefit. He worried that this overly broad law could have a chilling effect on his visitors.
One problem with the law is that it would take away anonymity when visiting sites that fell under its rubric. Having to present a credit card to get into a site that contains legal material could be a problem not only for porn sites but for other types of sites as well. Another witness represented a gay site that allowed for frank discussion about sexuality. He worried that people would stay away from his site for fear that they could “outed” because they had to identify themselves.
Finally, there is the issue of what really is and really isn’t harmful. While I strongly believe that parents should keep their kids away from pornography, I think that obsessing on this one issue could cause parents and authorities to miss some other important issues such as teaching kids and teens to protect their information, identify and reputation online. In the era of MySpace and YouTube (which weren’t’ even on the radar in 1998), parents need to worry not only about what their kids see, but what they say.
For young children, the best protection against “harmful” material remains parental involvement and, where necessary software filters. For teens — who are at most only a few years away from becoming adults — the best filters aren’t the ones that run on the PC but the one that runs inside the kids’ head. They need to learn to protect themselves and exercise the critical thinking skills that will serve them well on the Internet and in throughout life.