Commissioner Stephen Balkam|
Internet Content Rating Association
The Internet changes everything. It upsets our notions of how things should be, how countries should be governed, how companies should be run, how teachers teach and children learn. It mixes up our conceptual framework of what we think we know about the world, about each other and about ourselves. It is liberating, exciting, challenging and terrifying all at the same time. It is technology as a social force and it is instantaneous and it is everywhere. No wonder the Chinese authorities want to keep it from its people.
While the Internet has and continues to grow at an exponential rate, we remain witnesses to the first faltering steps of a phenomenon that is still in its infancy. To a majority of the world's people, the Internet remains mysterious, forbidding, incomprehensible and frightening. The greatest inhibitor to the continued growth of this new medium is fear. And when you ask people what they are most frightened of, invariably they return the top three concerns of porn, privacy and security. While the COPA Commission heard testimony that touched on the issues of personal privacy and numerous security issues, we focused on the issue of material deemed "harmful to minors". The US Congress asked us to recommend constitutionally acceptable remedies that would help shield children from pornographic images, while continuing to respect the rights of adults to access this type of material. I believe our multi-faceted approach of public education, increased prosecutions, the further development of filtering tools, the promotion of self-labelling and self-regulatory regimes within both the ISP and adult industries, is a remarkably comprehensive and dynamically balanced approach. I applaud my fellow Commissioners and their staff for bringing us to these conclusions.
It has not been easy. We had little time and even less money. We took our hearings out on the road which added to the challenge while reaping greater rewards in the quality, range and depth of the testimonies. We are a disparate group from a broad range of political, moral and personal perspectives. This diversity contributed to the challenge of reaching consensus on so many hotly disputed issues. It is a testimony to our Chairman, Don Telage, that we remained so cohesive and productive as a group.
Doubts remain, however, on how best to further what we have begun with our findings and recommendations. It became obvious to me during the Third Hearing in San Jose that a similar Commission was needed to address the same issues on an international basis. Although the United States has long lead the Internet revolution, other countries and regions of the world have fast caught up and are taking this medium into new and uncharted territory. I am thinking in particular about wireless applications and the convergence of media into Internet appliances. The United States must share what it has learnt while remaining open and receptive to other approaches emerging in Europe, the Asia Pacific and beyond. This is not exclusively a US problem, nor will an exclusively US range of remedies work in this the most interlinked and international media the world has ever known. New governmental, organisational and association models will have to be found to bridge the linguistic, cultural and political differences that bear on this issue when it is addressed at a global level. The ICANN experience is a recent example of this new world and it can be a tough and painful road.
Finally, we need to more vigorously spread the gospel of industry responsibility and consumer empowerment. The myriad of companies, concerns and individuals that make up the "Internet industry", while resisting government legislation, must see that it is in their own commercial interest to participate, fund and develop self-regulatory efforts in this area. Similarly, parents, caregivers and other concerned adults will need to invest some time and energy in getting to know what tools are available to protect their children from the worst of the web. Industry must make those tools easy to find and easy to use. Parents must be encouraged, educated and persuaded to use them. It is neither practical nor desirable for a governmental censor to pick and choose what a child will experience on the Internet. While government has a reduced role to play in this area, it can legitimately keep up the pressure on Industry to respond to the legitimate concerns of consumers. Government must finesse the art of carrot and stick and it must find new ways to do this in a global environment.
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