Last month a three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia deemed unconstitutional key components of a new law intended to regulate indecent material on the Internet. The decision was in response to a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which is part of the Telecommunications Act signed into law Feb. 8 by President Clinton.
The judge's unanimous decision was hailed as a victory by free speech advocates and the computer industry alike. Declaring "The Act" to be "unconstitutional on its face", the judges granted a temporary restraining order that prohibits the government from prosecuting or investigating areas of the Internet which may be deemed indecent or "patently offensive".
But the federal government has responded, as anticipated, and has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision of the lower courts. This is expected to be the first real test of free speech in cyberspace and the first attempt to clearly define the Internet as a communications medium. Thus far, the Internet has fallen outside the boundries of such governmental watchdogs as the FCC and other regulatory agencies.
Free speech and self rule have been hallmarks of the Internet since its inception. Citizens of the Internet, or "netizens", have existed in a pure democracy of sorts where there are agreed upon protocols and standards by which the majority of netizens abide. Nobody owns the Internet and no one is in charge, yet eveyone seems to exist cooperatively with an attitude of mutual respect. The filth and smut on the Internet is as abhorrent to most netizens as it is to the citizens of any community. The general concensus in dealing with such trash is, "if you don't like it...don't go there".
The Internet community recognizes, however, that this approach is unrealistic when it comes to curious children who are determined to surf the Net outside the watchful eyes of their parents. In responding responsibly to this problem, a number of software programs have been developed that allow parents to monitor and filter content on the Internet and World Wide Web and decide for themselves what is appropriate material for viewing.
SurfWatch was the first Net-blocking application to be released and is available as a stand-alone product or as a subscription program with frequent updates. SurfWatch contains a database of over 10,000 newsgroups, Web sites and chat areas that contain adult materials unsuitable for children. The process is simple: Children will be denied access to any sites in this database. Parents can customize this database and receive regular updates as well.
Net Nanny goes beyond SurfWatch and screens unfit material both online and offline. This program runs in the background, constantly searching a dictionary for occurences of key words or "screening" words and phrases that are deemed inappropriate. Like SurfWatch, Net Nanny allows you to add words or phrases to the dictionary.
This program has the advantage of screening for offensive materials that may have come from sources other than online, such as shared files or programs. A free 30-day evaluation can be downloaded from Net Nanny's home page.
Net Shepherd is a shareware product that allows you to set up multiple password-protected accounts and uses a system of site ratings, similar to movie ratings. Once logged on, a child can only access those sites that have suitable ratings.
Yahoo! recently released a youth-oriented version of it's popular search engine service called Yahooligans! This makes a good home page for the younger set as content is already filtered for "kid appropriate" content and search queries turn up zero hits when trying to locate unsavory Web sites.
The Internet community has responded swiftly and proactively to the problem of obscenity in cyberspace. The examples cited here are just the beginnings of Netwide efforts to protect children from sexually explicit and inappropriate content. I expect Web browsers such as Netscape and Explorer will soon include standard filtering options such as the Parental Controls now offered by America Online.
These efforts are true alternatives to Internet censorship and in fact go beyond the language of the Communications Deceny Act, giving parents greater autonomy to determine not only appropriate social content, but cultural, philosophical and religious materials as well. The global Internet society is most capable of addressing the problems of online obscenity in a manner that protects children, honors freedom of choice and respects freedom of speech --- without the intrusion of politics and the federal government.
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