Porn crusaders have Internet in their sights

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The Independent Online
Several of the biggest US online and media companies were queuing up yesterday to offer curbs on obscene material on the Internet. Mary Dejevsky in Washington says their offers were designed to fend off calls for compulsory regulation.

The sudden rush by such giants as the Walt Disney Co and America Online to propose their own, voluntary, policing of the Internet was timed to coincide with the opening of a high-profile national "summit" on the Internet and children. The voter-appeal of the subject in an America where the idea - if not the fact - of family values is sacrosanct and where children are among the most computer-literate in the world, can hardly be overestimated.

Companies involved, either through sponsorship or participation in the conference, include Microsoft and Time Warner, major telecommunications groups like AT&T and MCI, a clutch of "Moral Majority" groups concerned with the welfare of children.

The politicians have been swift to jump on the bandwagon. Among the speakers at the three-day "summit" in Washington are Vice-President Al Gore, who recently passed up a lunchtime speaking engagement on global warming in favour of posing for the cameras with a V-chip (the device that bars access to suspect computer material) - and the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich.

No politician who has an eye on election, or re-election, can afford to appear indifferent to an issue that has worked the millions of Middle American churchgoers and their Southern Baptist counterparts into a lather of indignation.

For parents, especially those living in the salubrious suburbs of big cities, the Internet represents a new threat, and one they feel ill-equipped to counter. Having moved out of the city to provide their children with safe surroundings, good schools and wholesome values, they see the Internet as the channel of a hostile incursion that they may be unable to control. They want their child to have a computer, because they have been told that computer literacy is a prerequisite for educational success, yet their children's facility with new technology, which often surpasses their own, makes them uneasy about what they may see.

Already, there are a series of blocking mechanisms that parents can use to limit or monitor children's access to the Internet. One parent of an 11-year-old girl, writing in the Washington Post yesterday, complained his daughter regularly received obscene messages sent to her e-mail address. But he was reluctant to restrict messages to an approved list of senders as her old friends might not be able to find her e-mail address.

America Online - appreciating that this week's conference will draw attention to the problem - is posting on its introductory page options that include restricting access by, for example, age-range.

Many parents, however, believe that such safeguards are insufficient. They want to make Online companies criminally liable for disseminating obscene material to minors.

A law to that effect was overturned this summer by a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, which ruled that the interests of free speech overrode those of protecting one group of the population.

That decision, however, only inspired the pro-family groups and others to continue their fight for stronger controls, as well as providing the impetus for this week's conference.

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