Commissioner C. James Schmidt|
School of Library and Information Science
San Jose State University
It has been said that the Internet is a "world-wide conversation". There is no limit to the number who may speak, the admission price for speakers is low, users can seek and "hear" the speech of their choosing.
As is the case with the printed medium, where the cost of speaking - publishing - is higher, the Internet's world-wide conversation contains speech offensive to some.
Congress asked the Commission established by the COPA legislation to examine ONE facet of this world-wide speech - content which might be or is "harmful to minors" - and to recommend ways in which minors might be protected from such content.
I did not enter into our task confident that the Commission could identify a constitutionally permissible way for American intervention into this world-wide conversation. A previous Congressional attempt to regulate content on the Internet - the Communications Decency Act - was declared by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Attempts by several states to regulate content on the Internet including harmful-to-minors material, e.g. Michigan, New York, Georgia, New Mexico, Virginia, have also been nullified by the courts. And a portion of the COPA legislation itself, aimed at regulating content, has been temporarily enjoined by a federal district court, and that enjoinment has been upheld on appeal.
However, the decisions of American courts are only a part of the story, since the Internet, by action of the Congress in 1998, is now subject to international governance through ICAAN. Therefore, enforcement of content regulation on the Internet in many instances will require multinational agreement - on definition of content, on reciprocity, on extradition, etc. Analogous difficulties, mitigated by some agreements, exist with respect to enforcement of laws about narcotics, currency transfers, terrorism, etc.
In the end, the protection of minors from Internet content that may be harmful to some will require active adult supervision. "Too much to do and too little time" is the response from many parents, guardians and care-givers. Hence a massive educational effort is needed, combined with the development of easily accessible tools, so parents and kids can participate in the world-wide conversation and realize the benefits while feeling safe.
The educational effort proposed is urgent and will be expensive. The urgency arises in part from the rapid growth of content - innocuous as well as offensive - on the Internet and the Web. Millions of web pages added each week. Web sites appearing and disappearing. The world-wide conversation has new speakers every second and content which appears and disappears with the speed of light. Urgency also arises from pervasive access. Schools are wired, classrooms are connected, ninety-five percent of American public libraries provide Internet access to their patrons. And then there is the wireless revolution, with broadband wireless - sufficient to carry broadcast quality video - just months away from introduction to consumers in Japan. A child who can't access certain content because of adult supervision or protective technology tools at home or school may easily access such content with a friend's wireless device in the backyard, on the bus, or while walking. Not many months away, Internet access won't require a home or school or library computer connected to a cable but rather a cheap and easily portable device.
The expense of the proposed educational effort owes to the need, first, to overcome adult fears of a medium - the Internet - which many know less about than the minors entrusted to their care. There are some simple rules for the electronic highway, which kids should be taught and which have their analogs in the physical world. "Don't accept a ride with a stranger"; "Don't give out your address or phone number to strangers"; etc. Second, besides reaching large numbers of adults in many languages, the educational effort must be sustained over time. Such efforts have been undertaken with respect to smoking, tobacco products and kids, alcohol and pregnancy, seatbelts.
To assure participation by all in this world-wide conversation, education is needed where law cannot reach.
A note about law enforcement. Testimony and submissions to the Commission's record were clear on two points. First, vigorous prosecution of Internet content under existing obscenity and child pornography statutes does not have a high enough priority. Secondly, law enforcement, especially at state and local levels, lacks the tools and the skills to investigate such crimes. Significant new resources will have to be provided at all levels, especially state and local.
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