The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was drafted to protect children on the Internet. Passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, the CDA suffered an early death on June 26, 1997 when the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to overturn the law. The CDA was somewhat flawed, as many supporters even attest, but the underlying issues it addressed were very important to children's safety on the Internet.
While the Supreme Court's verdict was expected, the logic behind this decision was not. Bruce Ennis, when criticizing the CDA before the Supreme Court on behalf of the ACLU and others, advocated an extremely restricted government role and overturn of the CDA. Despite favorable press coverage, his arguments were based upon common misconceptions about technology, parenthood and the limits of both. The Supreme Court agreed with many of these arguments, giving them the government's seal of approval.
These arguments must be answered and the misconceptions set right if we are to find a way to safeguard the Internet.
Ennis (describing filtering software costs): " the basic ones don't cost a thing. Everyone -- all of the 12 million Americans who subscribe to the Internet through the major online service providers get, at no additional cost, the parental control options that all of the major online service providers offer..."
Fact: Some online providers do offer free or discounted filtering software such as CyberPatrol or SurfWatch. However, most Internet service providers, including MSN, MCI and AT&T, do not furnish free filtering software, leaving parents with only the rudimentary filtering capabilities of Microsoft's web browser, Internet Explorer. While Internet Explorer is an excellent browser, it is a poor filter because it does not block access to newsgroups containing much of the strongest online pornography.
Ennis: "...there is a broad range of technologies and software programs that enable parents either completely to block all access to the Internet, if the parents are really concerned or, more selectively, to screen and filter access to the Internet if they want to allow their children to have access to certain parts of the Internet but not to others."
Fact: KidShield research shows that children can circumvent filtering software unless it completely blocks access to the Internet, or severely limits access to pre-approved selections (which amount to a miniscule portion of all web sites available). Of course, these extremes negate the benefits of the web. Other research, such as that reported in the May issue of Consumer Reports, arrives at much the same conclusion. Filtering software does not by itself offer safety for children. As a matter of fact, parents who exclusively rely on blocking software may be lulled into a false sense of security, and become less vigilant in guarding their children.
Furthermore, because sex and sexual parts of the human body have so many synonyms and euphemisms, it is common to accidentally come across pornography. Search Engines -- commonly used to navigate the Internet -- often display pornographic text in response to innocent queries ("toys," for example). Some sites have names that an unsuspecting child (or adult) can jump to without knowing the pornographic nature of the site.
Even if the software were 100% reliable, children would not be safe. The primary Internet access point for many children is school, the library or a friend's home. If just one of these sources lacked foolproof protection software, a child would have access to an abundance of pornography.
Ennis: "Under this law, there is no parental choice. The Government decides what's appropriate for all 17-year-olds. A parent who disagrees with the Government cannot, through the Internet, gain access to speech, safer sex information "
Fact: Ironically, just the opposite is true. With the filtering software solution proposed by the ACLU and others, children would be blocked from safe sex information. A teenager looking up research on AIDS, for example, would be likely to find many sites blocked by filtering software because of the word "sex."
Mr. Ennis correctly noted that while the CDA would regulate the Web, it would not effectively impact other Internet venues, such as newsgroups, which carry large amounts of pornography. Even if the CDA were upheld, further regulatory and technological development would have been needed to protect children online.
It is KidShield's deepest hope that our government revisits this issue and drafts new guidelines to protect our children. Our children should have the right to travel the Internet unscathed and unhindered.
The Family Research Council was one of the few organizations actively supporting the CDA. Arrayed against the CDA were the ACLU, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Global Internet Liberty Campaign among many others. To read the full text of the CDA, click here.