BYLINE: By T.R. Reid
The so-called "Communications Decency Act of 1995," the latest effort by government to censor the Internet's vast ocean of information and illustrations, is in big political trouble and probably won't pass. That's good news for those of us who hate the thought of some Big Brother-like agency reading e-mail and bulletin boards over our shoulders. But we must also concede that the sponsors of the bill have identified a genuine problem: There is a large amount of sexy, suggestive or downright filthy material floating around on the Internet and many bulletin boards, and it's just waiting to be downloaded by youthful net-cruisers who really shouldn't have access to such material.
Those who advocate government censorship of on-line communication say that a federal law is the only way to protect kids from cybersmut. In fact, there's a much better way. There's a force far more powerful than the U.S. government that could do the job if it chose to. The mighty force we're talking about is called "parents."
If you as a parent don't want your elementary schoolers downloading nasty pictures, you have the right, the duty, and the power to stop them. You don't need government to take over this parental chore; you can do a far better job than the FBI of regulating what your kids read on-line.
Of course, it won't be automatic. People who routinely use the computer as a cheap, convenient baby sitter are going to have to start paying attention to what sweet little Jennifer is downloading.
We don't let our elementary schoolers rent or watch the violent and foul-mouthed movies featuring Schwarzenegger or Willis. The kids complain, but that's the rule. We maintain similar rules for the Internet.
Do the kids try to cheat? Of course. But like many other families, we do our best to keep an eye open. The best way to do that is to pay attention to your kids while they're banging away at the keyboard. And we occasionally browse through the younger kids' own directories on the hard disk, just to see what they've been downloading lately. Except for the resident college kid, who is incorrigible, we haven't seen any obvious signs of sexy message traffic or filthy images. This could mean one of two things.
Maybe our little darlings are too pure to be interested in such indecent fare. Or maybe they are smart enough to encrypt and compress the stuff before dad gets home and starts prowling through the disk directories. Even with some obvious shortcomings, though, the old-fashioned idea of control by parents is vastly preferable to the sweeping mandate of the senate's "Communications Decency Act."
This effort to control what free people can read and say imposes jail terms and big fines for sending via computer any "indecent comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication." What constitutes an "indecent comment"? Naturally, the law doesn't say.
The bill passed the Senate fairly easily last month. But barely were the votes counted when the proposal ran into opposition from somebody who is probably more powerful than any senator: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Gingrich declared that the Senate bill is a "violation of free speech and the rights of adults to communicate with each other." With Gingrich opposed on constitutional grounds, the so-called Decency Act is probably dead. Of course, the bill wouldn't achieve much even if it passed. The global on-line community is not restricted to the borders of the United States.
More than half the users of the Internet don't live in the United States; some of the most infamous porno images on the net originate in Finland. Something tells us those folks aren't worried about what the U.S. Senate thinks is "indecent." Which brings us back to parents. It is not easy to keep track of what your kids read or download from on-line systems. But many parents recognize the need to do so.
This perceived need creates a market niche, and one thing we've learned in the fantastically capitalistic PC world is that no market need goes unmet for long. Several companies are already making plans for so-called "porno-shield" software programs that can automatically filter out what is being read or downloaded. We've seen a few initial efforts floating around the bitstream in shareware form.
Some programs work to block access to certain areas of the net. Some watch for code words, and immediately disconnect the user from the system. None is perfect yet. When it comes to controlling what young people can read on-line, the primary responsibility lies with mom and dad -- not Uncle Sam.
T.R. Reid is a Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post and writes a computer column.