All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 2000

The Internet: Parental Guidance Preferred

Legislation Is the Wrong Strategy for Protecting Children from Obscene Material Online

Keith Wade is the director of finance and MIS at Cypress Gardens in Florida and an adjunct instructor of business and information technology at Webster University.

It is probably helpful—given how venturing into the areas of “obscene” and “inappropriate” can often lead to name-calling and misunderstanding—to make a point very clear immediately. I do not intend to argue that obscene or otherwise inappropriate materials should exist, that the Internet should be a vehicle for delivering them, or that children should have access to them.

Rather, my point is that the only proper, effective, and realistic force that can keep children from inappropriate materials is the combination of parents and private industry. Although a commonly deployed strategy, legislation is simply wrong and ineffective. (Indeed, the FBI’s A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety advises parents to “Utilize parental controls provided by your service provider and/or blocking software” and “Monitor your child’s access to all types of live electronic communications [chat rooms, instant messages, Internet Relay Chat, etc.], and monitor your child’s e-mail.”) As will be discussed, we can agree on a proper mechanism for restricting children’s access while allowing each household to decide for itself which materials it deems “inappropriate.”

There are few among us who believe that children should have unrestricted access to the Internet (or television, movies, books, or the beer and wine aisle at the local grocery store, for that matter). While issues and viewpoints vary, most of us accept that at least some things should be the exclusive purview of adults. The Internet has provided children whose parents do not supervise their activities with access to a goodly number of these things.

Given recent unfortunate incidents, there is a redoubled interest in keeping children from inappropriate materials; the government seems more than willing to help. There is, however, simply no need for the government to assist parents in this way. There already exist—in addition to the obvious “no brainer” solution of supervising one’s children—ample economic incentives, free or low-priced tools, filtered Web access, private-industry utilities, and not-for-profit service groups to exclude children from “offensive” online material.

The Communications Decency Act

Perhaps one of the most blatant offenses against freedom of speech in this country in the past several decades is the Communications Decency Act of 1995. While the act was declared unconstitutional, the idea of censoring the Internet is one that will not die.

The act would have made it a crime for anyone to use “any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication.”

On the surface, many people find no problem with this. Children do not have the same rights as adults, and few would argue that they should have them. There are clear-cut reasons for keeping certain materials away from children until their judgment, values, and sensibilities have matured. But legislation such as this denies access not only to children but also to adults who presumably have every right to decide for themselves what offends them.

“Available to a person under 18 years of age” is an exceedingly broad and terribly subjective term. Does this mean, for example, “available to persons under 18 whose parents do a good job of supervising them” or “avail able to persons under 18 who are fraudulently misrepresenting themselves (perhaps to assist law-enforcement officers entrap someone)”? Considering that an Internet service provider or Web site operator cannot look at driver’s licenses, the only way to outlaw access by youth is to outlaw “inappropriate” sites entirely. Much as we might like to do that, the Constitution is fairly clear in prohibiting censorship of communication we do not like, even for something as laudable as protecting the nation’s children.

Perhaps as big a problem as the unconstitutionality of outlawing “offensive” Internet material is the definition of “offensive.” This is an area in which one size simply does not fit all. While children may have to bow to the idol of secular humanism in public schools, parents still have the right to instill whatever values they wish at home. Most parents make an effort to shield their children from bad influences during the impressionable years. These bad influences, however, vary from parent to parent. One person’s “family values” is another’s “hateful speech.” One family’s “intolerance” is another family’s “fundamental beliefs.” I recently received a self-diagnosis book from my HMO that I would never let a child see; one company’s “educational materials” are my family’s “full frontal nudity” and “simulated sexual activity.” Parental values simply vary too widely to let any one group decide what is appropriate for children.

Enter the Free Market

Fortunately, we need not rely on legislation to keep children from sites they ought not see. The free market offers numerous solutions.

Many magazines (the ones behind the counter at the bookstore) have been ruled legal but are deemed inappropriate for children. What stops children from picking up the phone, calling the toll-free number, and getting a subscription (after all, magazines do not require proof of age)? Money. Even if parents don’t monitor the incoming mail (probably for the same reason they don’t monitor their children’s computer usage), children are not known for their discretionary income or access to checks and credit cards.

Few folks operate commercial Web sites out of the goodness of their hearts. Setting up and running a site costs money. While there may be people who put “offensive material” on the Web just for the sake of doing it, most have products to sell. There’s no economic incentive to let kids into the site.

One incentive to keep kids out is the money that age-verification companies will pay site operators to do it. Several companies pay Webmasters a commission for each patron referred for age verification. The patron pays for an access number after proving he’s of age, then uses it at restricted sites.

Adult Check, for instance, advertises that it provides Webmasters with protection and profits. The company has developed “a complete system of adult verification, identification number assignment and a lucrative income earning opportunity for Webmasters” ( Tens of thousands of Webmasters have installed this gatekeeping solution, and numerous verification competitors (each with screens full of information about the potential profit for Webmasters) have popped up.

Family-Friendly Filters

Many companies have entered the market to provide “family friendly” Web surfing. MayberryUSA markets itself as a child-safe Internet service provider (ISP). It offers “a filtering system designed to give our netizens the best in Internet protection. We check the entire Internet daily, and update our filter. MayberryUSA wishes to provide its members with the best the web can offer and to protect its citizens from the dangers of pornography, hate groups, criminal skills, illegal drugs, and other offensive material” (

Realizing that “offensive” means different things to different people, MayberryUSA lets users help define what is accessible to themselves and their children: “anytime you find an offensive site, YOU can help protect our community. Click the green Sheriff sign on our sign post or the Badge at the top of any of our main pages and make your report. We will take immediate action to filter that site from the MayberryUSA community.”

America Online also permits users to restrict access to AOL areas, Web sites, chat rooms, and instant messaging through its “parental control” feature.

Perhaps the most important thing about family-friendly Web sites and surfing is that they are voluntary (and therefore have a keen interest in staying closely aligned with their customers). If someone does not want or need restrictions, or thinks his provider is letting in too much indecency, or thinks it’s gone overboard in its restrictions, he can change providers.

For the parents who would prefer not to rely on Webmasters and Internet service providers to prevent access to children, there are many software alternatives. The newest versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator include filtering capabilities that allow parents to decide what can be accessed. In the latest edition of Internet Explorer one can choose from five different categories of violence, from “no violence” to “wanton and gratuitous violence.” Sex, nudity, and obscenity screens have similar continuums.

While most legislation aims strictly at pornography, the commercial tools give parents control over much more. The maker of Net Nanny says the product “isn’t limited in terms of content type. You can screen and block anything such as Pornography, bomb-making formulas, hate literature . . . or whatever else concerns you. If you can define it, Net Nanny can block it!” ( Another product, CYBERsitter, “includes databases in numerous categories of web sites you might want to restrict access to” (

Online Guardian Angels

There’s yet another kind of protection for children in cyberspace. Much as they did on the urban streets, the Guardian Angels, through their CyberAngels branch, help police enforce existing laws regarding child pornography and child abuse in cyberspace. “We’re your cyber-neighborhood watch,” the organization literature says. “We find and report illegal material online, educate families about online safety and how to enjoy cyberspace together, work with schools and libraries, and share basic Internet tips and help resources” ( CyberAngels also monitors the Web and furnishes its list of 8,000 offending sites to filter-software companies and family-friendly ISPs.

Further, the group provides a babysitting service: “Our [volunteer] CyberMoms do what moms do best . . . keep their and your kids safe online. Specially trained to spot child predators online, they volunteer to moderate kids’ chats and watch children in cyber-playgrounds for online services and websites.”

We currently have many laws against the exploitation of children. While society is undoubtedly served when those who prey on children are caught, tried, convicted, and locked up, the damage to the children has already been done by the time offenders are apprehended. The virtue of private-sector methods to keep children away from inappropriate materials and computer users is that they prevent such harm.

One of the great truths in life is that families and private industry can generally do things better and more efficiently than government. This is no less true in cyberspace.